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Return from Finals; Hawks in dogfight for first

Baseball news from Japan and Asia

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Featuring Jim (a.k.a. NipponHam11)

The title defense begins! Welcome to 2012, Hawks fans!

Return from Finals; Hawks in dogfight for first

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I apologize for my extended hiatus, but I had a lot of work to attend to with finals and such, and with a chaotic work situation and a new workout program, there was just no time to write. However, now that school is over and work has stabilized a bit, I look forward to another summer writing for the SoftBank Hawks.

While I've been gone, the Hawks have been performing almost as expected. They trail the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters by percentage points for first place in the Pacific League, and despite closer Takahiro Mahara having mechanical troubles, all has been fairly well with the team.

The new crop of starters behind the top three of Sugiuchi, Wada and Houlton are doing very well for such fresh faces. Four of the five starters have ERA's under 3.00, with both Wada (2-1, 1.35) and Sugiuchi (1-2, 1.62) posting numbers of under 2.00. The only weak link has been newly-converted starter Tadashi Settsu, who is 2-2 with a 4.59 ERA.

As for the two youngsters in the rotation, Hiroki Yamada (3-2, 2.95) and Sho Iwasaki, both have been much better than anticipated. Yamada may own the highest walk total among the starters, but he also has the second-lowest WHIP among them, at 0.98. Iwasaki got his first professional win a couple days ago, and has looked much more impressive than he did last year, as he is not afraid to pound the strike zone with his fastball, and his velocity seems to have increased.

The bullpen has been a bit of a concern, as Mahara has been sent down to ni-gun with the aforementioned mechanical problems. Soichi Fujita, who broke camp with the team, has also had his problems and is back at ni-gun himself. However, the team has found some consistency in familiar faces, but with different roles.

Ace setup man Brian Falkenborg has filled the void left by Mahara by taking over the role of closer and has delivered with six saves so far. With Settsu in the starting rotation, left-handed sidewinder Morifuku has delivered as the top setup man with seven holds and an amazing no runs in 12 appearances, and Takehito Kanazawa has three holds of his own. Shota Ohba also seems to have finally figured it out, as he has been delivering with an electric 14 strikeouts against just two walks and a 2.45 ERA in eight appearances. The team just needs a left-handed specialist and maybe the return of a consistent Yuki Kume and they're in great shape.

The offense is a different story, pounding out hits one day, then doing nothing the next. Five players have over 100 at-bats so far, and six currently qualify for the batting title, but there is some disparity.

Seiichi Uchikawa (naturally) leads the team in batting average at .402, and already has four modansho (three or more hits in a game) on the season. Nobuhiro Matsuda has also been a force at the plate, batting .290 and he currently leads the team in home runs and runs batted in with seven and 19, respectively.

The disparity starts with Hitoshi Tamura, who put up MVP numbers last season, but has been in a bit of a funk so far in the 2011 campaign. He is currently batting .270 with two homers and 12 RBI, but he also has a good on-base percentage at .360. Alex Cabrera has been nothing short of a disappointment this season, batting .198 with four home runs and 11 RBI. He needs to turn it around and at least get up to .240 to keep opposing pitchers honest.

As for the competition in the PL this year, it's not as up-and-down as last season, but there is a certain amount of parity to be had. Seibu and Orix are bringing up the rear with 18 wins between them, but Seibu can and will break out eventually. The Rakuten Eagles are also in the mix with the defending champion Chiba Lotte Marines, leaving the top two positions with SoftBank and Nippon Ham. This is a memorable playoff race in waiting, but we haven't played enough games yet to even think about the playoffs.

Interleague is next on the docket, and the two-time champion Hawks will look to retake their crown from Orix, who won the competition last year. SoftBank opens up tomorrow against the surprising Hiroshima Carp and their hotshot starter Junpei Shinoda (2-2, 4.35). Akiyama will send Tsuyoshi Wada (2-1, 1.35) to counter. The game starts at 6PM Japan time at Yahoo! Dome.
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