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HARD DRIVES: Surprising swing in Sendai

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HARD DRIVES: Surprising swing in Sendai

by John E. Gibson (Sep 2, 2009)

In previous seasons, it seemed as if every win the Tohoku Rakuten Eagles racked up put an end to a losing streak. These days, every win seems to add to the Eagles' legitimacy.

Welcome to the playoff hunt, Rakuten.

The Eagles, in their fifth year, have a real chance to land in the playoffs, and they are starting to become the adopted darlings of the Pacific League. This collection of virtual misfits, has-beens, castoffs, runaways and hopefuls is not only relevant here in September, it's a winning team that seems to have the touch of magic needed to flap its way through the ups and downs of the long season.

Even skipper Katsuya Nomura--the king of curmudgeons--can't believe his team's good luck and has cut down on the gripes, coming out with clever quips that appear to have as much to do with coddling his young inexperienced charges as it does with drawing a few chuckles.

"I wonder if this means something good is going to happen," the skipper said after a Saturday win at Chiba in which his team capitalized on Marines' slip-ups. "I bet there's going to be a big typhoon in Sendai. You'd better watch out when you're there."

Nomura recently has been able to rock back and enjoy a belly laugh at some of his own jokes, a reflection of his team's success. The Eagles were 10 games over .500 in August--a make-or-break month in pennant races--and went from 4-1/2 games out of third to four games in front of the Saitama Seibu Lions for the final Climax Series playoff spot.

A look at some important numbers reveals nothing eye-popping. In fact, the Eagles are pretty ordinary. Through Monday, their .987 fielding percentage only put them fourth in the league; they've slugged the fewest home runs (81) and have hit into a PL-high 100 double plays.

But the Eagles pitch well, with their top two starters Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka combining for 22 victories, and their batters have the fewest strikeouts in the league, which means the Eagles put the ball in play.

The Eagles know how to win. They keep games close and scrounge up enough offense when the chips are down.

"We're getting the balance we need at the right time," Takahiro Ikeyama, the batting coach the past four years, told Hard Drives. "When we're not hitting, we get good pitching, and when the pitchers don't do well, the hitters are making up the difference with the bats. This has been the case the past two weeks.

"We're playing good baseball right now. When you win games, the team builds off that and it continues."

The Eagles showed their resilience in a recent three-game series at Seibu Dome. They dropped the opener but came back to take two of three from the Lions in a pair of tight games.

Rakuten has made its run to a modest five games over .500 without Rick Short, last year's batting champ who has a bad shoulder; or struggling veteran Norihiro Nakamura, who helped the Chunichi Dragons to a Japan Series title in 2007 but is on the farm; or dependable Nos. 3-5 starters.

Down the stretch, they have to somehow beat back the Lions, an experienced club that has players who have produced under the spotlight.

"This team is young and as the games mount in pressure, we'll see if they can keep it up. I believe we have a great chance to go to the playoffs--we can finish third or even second," said Ikeyama, who as a player landed four Series championships with the Yakult Swallows.

Fernando Seguignol, who won back-to-back PL titles--including a Series championship--with Nippon Ham in '06 & '07, is a calming force for the Eagles. He said the key is attention to detail.

"It's new for a lot of these guys--they've never been in this situation before where there's a pretty good chance to get into the playoffs," the slugger said.

"The pitchers are doing a good job. We had pitching when I was with the Fighters and we have that here. So it'll be about doing the little things and not making the mental mistakes that can happen with a lot of young players and guys who've never been there before.

"They start panicking and things start to crumble because of those little things. We need to be patient and relax and enjoy it as much as you can."

Rakuten relax? The Eagles enjoy it? Those words signal a big swing in Sendai.

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