The struggling rotation of the three-time defending Central League champion Yomiuri Giants has become more of a "Who's that?" than a who's who.
The three Is--injuries, inconsistency and ineffectiveness--have plagued the starters recently and the team ERA is third in the CL at 3.95, just ahead of the Hanshin Tigers' 4.31.
Shun Tono is tied for the league lead with a career-best 12 wins, but has lost three straight starts. Dicky Gonzalez is still trying to find last year's form, having lost a career-worst nine. In addition, his 5.77 ERA is higher than the 2004 season, his worst with the Yakult Swallows.
Southpaw Tetsuya Utsumi has been mostly mediocre, going 7-6 with a 4.08 ERA before starting Thursday night at Tokyo Dome against the Chunichi Dragons.
The Giants, who had to deactivate right-hander Seth Greisinger because of reported inflammation in his surgically repaired elbow, have turned to Tohoku Rakuten Eagles castoff Hideki Asai and Satoshi Fukuda.
Asai, a ninth-year righty, started the season with a career 4.28 ERA in 102 appearances and Fukuda, a right-hander in his fifth season, brought a 4.75 ERA in 48 career outings.
"Fukuda was pitching occasionally, but now has become a valuable cog for us," said Yomiuri pitching coach Masaaki Saito.
He admitted losing Greisinger, whose surgery and rehab kept him out of the rotation until Aug. 3, has dealt the club a blow.
"Greisinger didn't make it back in time for the start of the season and when we finally thought he was back, he's gone again," Saito said.
"Last year both Greisinger and Gonzalez did really well for us [a combined 28 wins] but the fact that neither has been in great form has been awfully tough on us."
Closer Marc Kroon, who has also battled through injuries, said ups and downs are to be expected.
"It's baseball," said Kroon, who is on the verge of recording at least 20 saves for the sixth consecutive season.
"Last year our starters did well--you had Dicky with 15 wins, but this year he's struggled a little bit. We went for about two weeks at one point where the starters weren't getting out of the third inning, fourth inning--that put a lot of stress on the bullpen.
"But they're starting to come around now and do their thing. Things like that happen in baseball."
Yomiuri relievers have been stretched to the limits, but have been resilient and effective.
Kroon has 19 saves and Tetsuya Yamaguchi (24 holds) and Yuya Kubo (21 holds) have been strong in keeping leads.
"The relievers who throw when we have the lead have been very steady, but if we rely on them too much that's going to make things harder," Saito said.
"In that respect, we'd like to have the starters go a little bit deeper into games."
As the games get more important down the stretch, the Giants will have to rely on more than just their power to outlast the first-place Tigers and the third-place Chunichi Dragons in the race for the CL title and throughout the playoffs.
Edgar Gonzalez, who hit .308 with three homers and 12 RBIs the past three weeks, said the little things will mean a lot for Yomiuri.
"Fundamental baseball is really important now," he said.