There are many positives to point to as the Tokyo Yakult Swallows gaze down on the rest of the Central League.
The immediate impact of newcomer Wladimir Balentien, the consistency from X-factor Kazuhiro Hatakeyama and the return to form of Shohei Tateyama have obviously provided the wind beneath the Swallows' wings. But the steadiness and leadership of 17th-year veteran Shinya Miyamoto is a part of the mechanism that looks to have them on course for a title.
The 40-year-old infielder, once a shortstop who has played third since June 21, 2008, despite his decided lack of power, started the season lacking in confidence. That quickly turned around for the player many see as the force that keeps the Swallows on course.
"More than any of my other seasons, for some reason this season I just felt off," Miyamoto said late last week at Jingu Stadium.
"But personally, I had a good start to the season and, honestly, that seemed to put me in a positive frame of mind. My batting was just terrible in the preseason, but in the opener I had an RBI hit and that allowed me to relax," said Miyamoto, who in April became the oldest player to win the monthly MVP award at 40 years 5 months.
"I won it with only a half-month's work," quipped Miyamoto, who had 22 hits and batted .400 in games between April 12 and 30.
Miyamoto admitted the March 11 earthquake and tsunami--and the ensuing public wrangling over when to start the season--threw everything out of kilter.
"We played these practice games, but there were no fans and it was just a very odd feeling--it was difficult to get into the games mentally," Miyamoto said. But playing winning baseball has a way a eliminating the odd feelings.
"When you're winning, everyone is in a good mood," he explained. "The trouble is we aren't going to be able to keep this up the entire season, so when things start to go bad we need someone to step up."
Balentien brought the Swallows' level up right away, cracking a total of 13 homers with 26 RBIs in April and May. But as he has slowed down in recent weeks, the rest of the team has stepped up. Even with the power surge he has provided, the Swallows are essentially doing what they did after skipper Shigeru Takeda decided last season to walk away in May.
"When you look at things, we haven't dropped off since our last manager decided to quit," Miyamoto said. "Under [Junji] Ogawa, since he was named the interim manager, we've been doing the same as we did the second half of last year.
"When you look at the team and the way we play, nothing has changed," Miyamoto, who took a pitch in the neck on Thursday but wasn't deactivated.
Indeed, the Swallows have the best record in Japan since Ogawa took over on May 27 last year. They went 59-36-3 to finish last season and were 12 games over .500 heading into Tuesday's action.
Miyamoto said the Swallows aren't looking at the standings, only monitoring the number of games played. He said the key to finishing off a run to their first CL title since 2001 is to focus on the little things.
"The manager is taking care of all the game planning and the strategy, and it's our job as players to get ourselves ready and go out and execute," Miyamoto said. "It's the small things that anyone can do, like running hard, covering the bases, not missing signs--those are the things we have to do all season that are going to be important for us."