In recent years, one of the main reasons to watch a Hiroshima Carp game was the possibility of seeing former skipper Marty Brown throwing a base. So far this season, the basis for fans getting hooked on the Carp has been what the team has been throwing: quality pitches.
As a school of No. 1 draft picks surfaces, this team looks like it has a successful formula for moving up the Central League food chain.
Yes, postseason possibilities abound for the Carp, a team that has been bottom-feeding in the CL since manager Koji Yamamoto left two seasons after directing the Carp to the Japan Series in 1991.
He came back in 2001, but failed to find success. In fact, the last time Hiroshima finished in the top half of the standings was 1995, when it ended the season eight wins shy of the first-place Yakult Swallows.
The Carp have ended up in the lower half of the CL race 15 times since 1992--including 10 fifth-place finishes.
None of the subsequent managers has been able to turn the team around, and second-year skipper Kenjiro Nomura made no positive impact last season. But through 12 games in 2011, the Carp have chopped a run and a half off last year's 4.80 team ERA and were sitting a half-game out of first.
The pitching-rich Chunichi Dragons don't even have this kind of stability in their rotation yet, and early on, the Carp are popping the catcher's glove with the best of them.
"We're pitching well despite the fact that we've got some guys hurt right now," pitching coach Yutaka Ono told Hard Drives last week.
"Gio [Giancarlo Alvarado] is out, Yuki Saito, as well as [Kan] Otake, are out for us," said Ono, a media magnet with all the team's success on the mound.
"But our young guys are working hard. We're winning so it looks like we're having success, but the rotation isn't actually that strong. We've just had some pitchers step up and plug some holes, and we're doing very well, but our rotation isn't stable yet."
It looked pretty solid during a recent six-game winning streak that put the Carp alone atop the league standings for the first time since April 4, 2005. Four homebred top picks and one imported No. 1 selection earned victories as quality starts were a near-daily occurrence.
Right-hander Bryan Bullington, the Pittsburgh Pirates' No. 1 pick in 2002, got the streak started with eight shutout innings against the Hanshin Tigers on April 14.
After a tie the following day, second-year righty Takeru Imamura--the team's top selection in autumn 2009--tossed 3-1/3 innings of scoreless relief for the win.
Rookie right-hander Yuya Fukui, the team's top pick last year, followed with a quality start to beat the Giants for his first pro win.
Reigning Sawamura Award winner Kenta Maeda, who last year blossomed into a front-end-rotation man after being Hiroshima's No. 1 pick in 2006, followed with a seven-inning, three-run effort. The next day '07 top pick Junpei Shinoda, a left-hander, upstaged Maeda with a two-hit shutout.
All these strong arms match up well with the top rotations in the CL, and the Carp have the talent to pull them along in a playoff race that figures to be much more competitive than it has been the past five years.
"The season is still very young and other than Maeda, the rest of us really haven't put up any numbers in the past--we have a lot of young pitchers," said Shinoda, who added being a top pick has no impact on performance.
"It doesn't matter in what round you get drafted," he said, adding everyone develops at a different pace.
"We can really only look at things one game at a time. They have us all on the roster, and for me, it's my fourth year and I'm glad I'm getting a chance to pitch."
No matter how well the pitchers throw, the Carp have to play defense and consistently score runs to reach the playoffs.
"The pitchers are really working hard, so we want to score runs for them and make it easy for them when they're on the mound," said cleanup man Kenta Kurihara.
"One mistake [in the field] can lead to a lot of runs so we have to take care of business, especially if we don't get the job done on offense."
Losing has had the Carp seeing red for years--now it might be code red for the CL.