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John E. Gibson

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HARD DRIVES: Fighters can rely on armed forces

by John E. Gibson (Jun 29, 2011)

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters fell just short of winning the interleague title, but their armed forces on the mound will keep them marching toward the bigger objective.

Sure, Fukuoka SoftBank went through the first 12 interleague games with an unprecedented 10-0-2 record. The Hawks mashed their way to their third interleague title by going 18-4-2 with a gaudy .818 winning percentage against the Central League. It was certainly enough to spur an "Oh, no, do we have to face these guys?" mentality from some CL opponents.

A few Pacific League teams might also have to beat back similar thoughts as we approach the midway point in the season.

But the arms the Fighters bring to the battle should make for a "Honey, I want to tape the game again" September.

Hard Drives predicted in the preseason the Hawks would win the PL crown, based on additions such as Seiichi Uchikawa, who improved an already strong outfield and lineup, and Toru Hosokawa, who turned a glaring weakness behind the plate into a strength.

The Fighters, though, made their own headline-grabbing romp. In one stretch, Fighters hurlers humiliated CL batters by firing 52 consecutive scoreless innings and tying the Nippon Professional Baseball record.

They reeled off a record-tying string of five straight shutouts--and not just against the dregs of the league. The streak began with back-to-back 1-0 wins over the Hiroshima Carp, who were over .500 at the start of interleague.

They cruised past the Hanshin Tigers 5-0 before ace Yu Darvish worked the Kansai crew over with a four-hit, no-walk effort for a 1-0 win. The CL's front-running Tokyo Yakult Swallows fell 9-0 before busting up the scoreless string and the Fighters' winning streak with a 5-1 victory.

But the Fighters hit back the next day, blanking the Yomiuri Giants 5-0 and 2-0 to set the stage for more Darvish destruction, which came in a 1-0 whitewashing of the Chunichi Dragons for a hard-to-fathom eight shutouts in nine games.

Obviously most fans know Darvish (9-2, 1.37 ERA)--who has so many big league scouts drooling, they need bibs--but Masaru Takeda deserves far better than the 5-5 record he has been saddled with despite his 1.34 ERA, second best in the PL.

Second-year starters Bobby Keppel and Brian Wolfe are each 7-2, the latter needing only six starts to surpass his win total of four from last season.

"You look at our staff going into this year, on paper we were capable, I think, of doing something like this," Keppel said one day after helping extend the record scoreless streak with seven shutout innings against the Swallows on June 3.

"We just had to be able to string it together at the same time. Masaru has been as good statistically as any other pitcher in this league the past couple of years, so what he's doing is not surprising anybody.

"And Wolfe and I are kind of the wild cards--you just never know what we're going to get every game. Some games we're on, some game we give up hits, but we let our defense play."

The Fighters, who finished third in interleague, committed just one error during their dominating run, and Keppel credited a strong defensive effort for hatching the string of goose eggs on the scoreboard.

"It's a great team record, everyone's involved."

How did the Fighters do it? They shut down the parts of opponents' orders they needed to, and limited damage by run producers. The collective group of CL 3-4-5 hitters hit just .250 off Nippon Ham in 24 interleague games.

The hottest and biggest names were held to mediocre performances, Yomiuri Giants cleanup man Alex Ramirez and Yakult's Wladimir Balentien each going an identical 4-for-15 in four games.

Yokohama BayStars No. 5 hitter Brett Harper had the most success against the Fighters, going 6-for-14 with a hit in all four games against Nippon Ham.

So all this pitching success means the Fighters can stay hot on the wings of the Hawks, who led the PL by two games heading into Tuesday's action. But can they do it when it counts in the postseason?

With Darvish on their side, the Fighters' mind-set has to be "Yes, we can." Expect this to be a fight to the finish.


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