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Hawks' Mahara now revels in role as reliever

by John E. Gibson (Jul 30, 2010)

Takahiro Mahara began his career with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks as a starter. That chapter of his career ended quickly, but he is writing his way into the record books by slamming the door on the opposition.

The right-hander, who on Wednesday became just the ninth pitcher to record 150 saves, was ineffective as a starter in 2005--his second year with Hawks--and got shipped to the farm team.

The Hawks' rotation was deep and he was told a switch to relief might get him back on the first team faster.

"At the time, we had some really good starters. I was told I had to put up good numbers in three straight games on the farm before I could get back on the big club," Mahara said Friday before the Pacific League's first-place Hawks took on the third-place Chiba Lotte Marines.

"I would have two games and one bad one and that situation continued for a while," he said of his work on the farm.

Mahara returned to the first team as a middle reliever and quickly found success. He was good enough to give then-closer Koji Mise, now with the Chunichi Dragons, an occasional day off.

"I got my first save the day after I was called back up," said Mahara, who went on to record 22 saves in '05. "But I didn't think I was going to be closing. I was just focused on getting back to being a starter.

"Even as I was saving 22 games, I kept thinking, 'I wonder when I'll be able to return to being a starter.'

"As I was getting each save, I still felt like Mise was the closer. I was hoping he would return to form. And then, before I knew it, I was the guy at the back of the bullpen."

Two years later in '07, Mahara led the PL with 38 saves.

The Kumamoto native is second in the league this season with 21 saves. He has allowed just five runs in 39-1/3 innings, and has a 1.14 ERA and a WHIP (walk and hits per innings pitched) of 0.99.

At 28, Mahara has a chance to put up record numbers.

"I think the closer role fits me. I like going out there with the game on the line on every pitch," said Mahara. "It's one inning and each pitch means a lot.

"As a starter, I think I was only going at 50-70 percent. Now as the closer, I go after every batter at 100 percent."

As for reaching the 150-save mark, Mahara wasn't ready to save a place on the mantel for the game ball.

"It's not some tremendous number or anything like that. It's just a milestone that I passed," said Mahara, who was the fastest Japanese reliever to reach that plateau--267 games. "I'm genuinely happy to have done it this fast."

The Hawks have one of the best bullpens in Japan, but certainly none of the fanfare that accompanies similar success.

The Hanshin Tigers last decade sported the "JFK" trio of Jeff Williams, Kyuji Fujikawa and Tomoyuki Kubota, and the Yokohama BayStars had the "Daimajin" in Kazuhiro Sasaki in the '90s.

But the late-inning trio of Tadashi Settsu, Brian Falkenborg and Mahara simply have the moniker "SBM."

Mahara said the name of the game isn't the name of the gang, it's being consistent and successful each year.

Angry Okubo fires back

Hiromoto Okubo, whose contract with the Saitama Seibu Lions was terminated over a reported act of violence against a player, apologized to the club but was talking lawsuit when he spoke on the matter late Thursday.

According to Hochi Shimbun, the 43-year-old, who had already been relieved of his duties as minor league batting coach, said he did nothing wrong and hinted that he would sue for improper dismissal.

"As for the cause for termination, I have a problem with part of the reason given," Okubo said. "I did nothing improper as a coach."


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