The Yomiuri Giants' rotation has spent much of the season spinning in circles. But the Giants made a mid-summer trade that has given them a chance to put a different spin on the Central League title chase.
The front-running Chunichi Dragons won Tuesday to become the first team in Japan to clinch a spot in the Climax Series playoffs, and the Giants are in a virtual tie with the Hanshin Tigers for second place, 2-1/2 games back.
Hideki Asai has been a shot in the Giants' arms, going 3-1 with a 2.43 ERA in seven starts for the three-time reigning CL-winning Giants.
The 26-year-old right-hander, acquired from the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles on July 28, won his debut with Yomiuri with seven scoreless innings on Aug. 8 against the Hiroshima Carp.
He worked seven scoreless again on Tuesday, but had to settle for no decision when the bullpen surrendered the lead in the eighth inning.
The Giants eventually won 4-3 on Hayato Sakamoto's 30th homer, a walk-off solo blast in the 12th, but Asai's groundwork put the Giants in position to win.
For a guy who made one first-team appearance for the Pacific League's last-place Eagles, his work has been pleasing to him and the Giants.
"It's just a pleasure to be here on the first team and have the opportunity to pitch," said Asai, who started his career with the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes in 2002 and now has a career record of 24-33 with a 4.17 ERA in 484 innings.
"I had been on the farm with Rakuten for a long time, so it was a chance to turn over a new leaf once the trade went through."
Now with his third team, Asai said it's time to get results.
"I feel like I have to go out and make it happen on the field."
The Yomiuri pitching staff in July was coming off a franchise-worst string of 12 games allowing double digits in hits when Asai came aboard. It was a good time to find a place in a struggling rotation.
"Skipper [Tatsunori] Hara told me to work hard and just prepare myself," said Asai, who added there was no talk of when he would get a shot on the top team.
The Giants handed him the ball in games crucial to their playoff chances, and Asai has made the best of the opportunity. He is now just focused on making contributions.
"I had no idea I'd be able to pitch like this. It's a surprise to me. But it's also due in part to the players behind me and [catcher Shinnosuke] Abe. He figures out the batters and calls a great game.
"I'm getting a lot of help."
The Giants need a little bit of help if they're going to come back and win their fourth straight league title.
The Dragons went into Wednesday's action with five games left, including two against the fourth-place Tokyo Yakult Swallows, and 77 wins.
The Giants had 10 games on their schedule, including five against last-place Yokohama, and had 73 wins.
Asai is anxious to contribute, but said he isn't going to try to be someone different.
"I can only do my best. I can't try to go beyond my limits," Asai said about pitching down the stretch and in the postseason.
"I just want to pitch to the absolute best of my ability.
"I don't know what to expect in the playoffs--I don't have experience in the postseason. All I know is I'll prepare myself and be ready when my time comes."