The next six weeks may make or break the Saitama Seibu Lions' season.
With slugging third baseman Takeya Nakamura and key starter Takayuki Kishi out until September, the Lions came out of the All-Star break with a half-game lead in the Pacific League.
With slugger G.G. Sato out of form, manager Hisanobu Watanabe's offense entered the second half ranked fifth in the PL in runs.
On June 28, the Lions signed 35-year-old slugger Jose Fernandez to give the offense a boost.
Fernandez, a key contributor to Seibu's 2004 Japan Series championship, suited up on July 14 and drove in five runs in his first four games, all Lions wins.
The Lions' first-base platoon combination of left-handed hitter Yoshihito Ishii and righty swinger Hiroshi Hirao had been reaching base--with a combined .377 on-base percentage--but not hitting for extra bases. Fernandez, with a career .507 slugging average in seven PL seasons, provides the Lions with more power potential.
"Yoshii's a good hitter, a good player can play different positions, Hirao, too," said Fernandez, whose arrival has left the two role players with more time on the bench. "I am here to add to the mix."
Fernandez appeared finished in Japan after batting .261 last year for Orix in his only season as a Buffalo.
"I've always been healthy, except for last year. I hurt my toe," he said. "You think, 'It's OK, you can play, you can play,' but it's not the same. You look up one day and you're batting .200."
Although his results got better, the campaign was an unmitigated disaster for Orix, which fell into last place as its impressive foreign power core of Fernandez, Tuffy Rhodes, Alex Cabrera and Greg LaRocca fell victim to one injury after another.
With no Japanese teams interested, Fernandez found himself playing in the Mexican League.
"I was in Cancun. If it hadn't been there I wouldn't have gone," he said.
"It was great coming here. I know a lot of the players. A lot of the young guys who were here have grown into stars. They're great guys."
Fernandez's signing mirrored an earlier move by the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, the Lions' closest pennant-race rivals. On May 22, the Hawks brought Roberto Petagine back to Japan after a five-year absence.
On July 21, the 39-year-old's second sayonara homer of the season handed the Lions their fourth straight defeat and sent SoftBank into the All-Star break a half-game back of Seibu.
"We did poorly at the end of interleague, and we stumbled again at the end of the first half," Watanabe said. "We seem to have trouble at the closing stages.
"The remedy for that would be a dash out of the gate. To do that, we need to find some rhythm between our offense and defense. Every manager wants the same, but I think we have the ability to achieve it."
So far, the Lions have made do with little but rhythm.
Seibu's pitching and defense let in 401 runs in the first half, fourth most in the league. They have outscored their opponents this season by just 16 runs, the fifth-worst difference in the PL.
"We don't need guys to step up, but each player needs to do his job competently," said Watanabe.
Between a steady string of injuries and the chaos surrounding the team over the recent dismissal of farm coach Hiromoto Okubo for physical abuse, the Lions have every reason to hit the panic button, but Watanabe isn't ready for that.
"I'm not prepared to talk about that [the Okubo issue]," Watanabe said. "The important thing is that we are moving forward."