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Fighters still armed for PL battle without Darvish

by John E. Gibson (Feb 17, 2012)

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pitchers are gearing up to shoulder the burden left by the gone-and-not-soon-forgotten Yu Darvish, and are confident they can strike up success this season.

After all, Darvish didn't pitch every inning each time out, and the other starters combined with a strong relief corps to give the Fighters the second-best ERA in the Pacific League last season.

The pitching staff was a large part of Nippon Ham's second-place PL finish last year, so the Fighters said expectations need only be adjusted, not blown up because of one spot in the rotation.

"I'm often asked if I'm going to step up my game, and to be honest, I can't do anything different," third-year starter Bobby Keppel said by phone on Wednesday from the Fighters spring training camp at Nago, Okinawa Prefecture.

"I can't try to be him [Darvish]," Keppel said. "[Fellow starter Brian] Wolf said this to one of the reporters, and I agree with it: 'We have to pitch the same.' We might have to pitch against a guy further up in the rotation--say I pitched against the No. 3 last year, maybe I'll get the No. 2 this year.

"But in general, the four [rotation mainstays] have to do the same thing, and then we need to rely on the young pitchers to come in and step up and help the team."

In addition to going 93-38 over seven seasons with the Fighters, Darvish gobbled up innings. He worked 1,268 innings and had 55 complete games while keeping his ERA at 1.99, saving the bullpen loads of work.

"I want to be able to go deeper [into games]," Keppel said. "There were times last year I could have gone deeper, but our bullpen was doing so well they wanted to hand the ball over to them.

"Maybe in those situations this year, I'll keep the ball to give them more rest."

Soft-tossing lefty Masaru Takeda is likely to take over as No. 1 starter. Keppel, who tied Darvish for second on the team in wins in 2010 with 12 and was 14-8 last year, Wolf (12-11 in '11) and oft-injured southpaw Tomoya Yagi are likely to follow. Second-year righty Yuki Saito--better known as the "Handkerchief Prince"--is expected to hold a spot after going 6-6 in '11, but the level of confidence drops off after that.

"I see myself as one of the four starters [the skipper] feels confident in going to, and then we have two more slots that there's some competition for," said Keppel, who is 26-14 with a 3.28 ERA in Japan. "Every year you want to be the best pitcher on the staff, and so that's my goal--to be the guy who when I get the ball, the team feels we have a high probability of winning.

"I hope all the other guys have the same goal."

One of the early goals is for players and coaches to acclimatize under former Yakult Swallows outfielder-turned-TV-reporter-turned-skipper Hideki Kuriyama.

Keppel said the lines of communication were opened early and are free flowing.

"I met him one time two years ago--we did a TV interview together," Keppel said. "It was a thorough interview, actually one of the better ones I did, so I knew he obviously understood baseball.

"He's really stressing communication and talked to all the foreigners and said, 'If there's anything you want to do here, speak to us like we're equals and we'll do the best to accommodate you.'

"If we disagree, obviously they have the final say, but he made it a very distinct point to mention that to us. It makes you feel comfortable."

The Fighters have had an uncomfortable offseason, saying sayonara to Darvish and missing out on a first-round draft pick because Tomoyuki Sugano opted to sit out a year rather than join the club. But Keppel said they are still armed for the PL race.


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