A little more than a month into the season, it's clear the Hiroshima Carp have a tough swim toward a playoff spot.
But the Carp can compete with the big fish in the Central League pond when it comes to starting pitching.
Making the biggest waves is 24-year-old ace Kenta Maeda. The righty's resume is filled with elite-level accomplishments: He has a Sawamura Award as Japan's best pitcher--with an outstanding 2010 season--and he fired his first career no-hitter on April 6 against the Yokohama BayStars. He owns a pair of strikeout titles, a Golden Glove and a Best IX selection, to boot.
And with Yusuke Nomura--a rookie of the year candidate--joining second-year standout Yuya Fukui, Bryan Bullington and Jumpei Shinoda, the Carp can keep games close.
"When you compare our rotation with other teams around the league, I think we match up very well," Maeda told The Daily Yomiuri last week.
"Not only that, we're pretty young when compared with those teams, so I feel like we're a strong group now and we have a chance to develop and have a good future."
The future can't come soon enough, though. The Carp's rotation is mostly wet behind the ears, and that's the one area Maeda (4-2, 2.65 ERA) pointed to as a flaw.
"We have to stay healthy but our weakness might be that we're low on experience," he said. "But on the other hand, that might be the reason we get to where we want to be--because we want to gain more experience."
Last year's experience was painful for Maeda. Coming off his Sawamura Award-winning effort, he struggled in 2011, falling far short of expectations. He said it was more about aches and pains than adjustments or loss of velocity.
"I had little knickknack injuries that just didn't allow me to feel right physically," said the Osaka native, who stumbled early and finished 10-12 with a 2.79 ERA. "I had injuries to my legs and couldn't throw with the same form as I did the year before. But I'm feeling great now."
This season, he hasn't allowed a run in four of his seven starts, and said he isn't one to shy away from expectations.
"I know the fans have high expectations and I'm the kind of person who feeds off those expectations," Maeda said. "As a player, I'd rather have high expectations for me from the fans than not have any at all.
"It's a good situation that inspires me to grow. And because I've gotten [a Sawamura Award] already, that gives me the chance to win it again."