The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks look like they're at cruising altitude, but circumstances in the bullpen will keep their heads out of the clouds.
Back trouble forced the Hawks last week to deactivate righty Brian Falkenborg--the set-up man who was filling in at closer for injured Takahiro Mahara. The regular ninth-inning man has been out since late June because of shoulder issues.
The Pacific League front-runners scrambled last Saturday to acquire 30-year-old Yhency Brazoban from the Arizona Diamondbacks, but in the meantime they have shuffled hurlers around in the bullpen without missing a step.
SoftBank also brought in Edison Barrios from the Kansai Independent League as insurance.
The Hawks in recent years have been able to essentially shorten games with a lights-out bullpen, but the injuries to Mahara and Falkenborg meant they have to be creative--not simply throw all their relievers into very unfamiliar roles.
"Well, obviously with the injuries we've got to the two guys at the back of the bullpen--the set-up guy and the closer--out, we've had to make some moves," head coach Daijiro Oishi said a week ago at Seibu Dome before a game against Saitama Seibu Lions.
"We've shuffled some guys around, but it's always good to have some help, even if it's just one extra guy."
Brazoban has 21 big league saves--all with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2005 before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2006--but Oishi said they want him to get his feet wet in Japan before asking the righty to fill that role.
"I don't think we can't just throw him in right away. We'll take a look at how he's throwing and determine whether he should be closing or in a late-relief role," Oishi said.
When everyone gets back, it figures to create a fight for space on the first team.
"We'll have guys competing at a high level, not somewhere in the middle, but an increased level. That means the guys in front of the set-up guy will have to be sharper, and that makes the team stronger," Oishi said.
Southpaw set-up man Masahiko Morifuku, who made his first All-Star game this season, usually works middle relief but has had to take on more late-game responsibility. He didn't mince words about the changes.
"The fact that those two guys [Mahara and Falkenborg] are not here is unsettling." the fifth-year hurler said.
"But everyone is pitching well and we've been able to keep teams off the scoreboard so far. We just have to focus on the details and do our individual jobs," said Morifuku, who worked the ninth inning of Friday's 4-4 tie with the Lions.
"I try not to think about it being the ninth inning and just go out and just try to complete the inning.
The Hawks' rotation has been dominant over much of the season, but Morifuku said the starters will be counted on a little more to, in effect, relieve the relievers.
"The starters have worked into the seventh inning a lot this season for us, so that means it's the bullpen in the eighth and ninth," he said.
"We need them to go deep into games. At the moment, we don't know who's going to pitch when, but we're working well together right now."