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MLB returnees fail to take flight with Eagles

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MLB returnees fail to take flight with Eagles

by Rob Smaal (Jun 7, 2011)

Offense has been hard to come by for many NPB clubs so far this season, and the Pacific League's Rakuten Eagles are certainly no exception.

If there was ever a team that people would be pulling for, it is the 2011 version of the Eagles. Helmed by fiery first-year skipper Senichi Hoshino, the start of the club's season was thrown into disarray in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that wrought havoc on their home base of Sendai, not to mention the lingering nuclear crisis.

The Eagles won their emotional, delayed season-opener, 6-4 over the defending Japan Series champion Marines in Chiba, but the feel-good story of "the little team that could" has stalled since then.

Through June 5, the Eagles were 13 games under .500, sitting dead last in the PL (17-23-2), and their offense was sputtering along at a .229 clip, fifth in the six-team league for team batting average. They ranked last in runs scored--the only PL club still in double-digits with 98--and the entire team had hit just 20 home runs, six of them off the bat of 42-year-old cleanup hitter Takeshi Yamasaki.

Some are blaming the new Mizuno baseballs being used this year for the offensive drought. They are "deader" and don't fly off the bat as well as the old balls. Others point to reduced lighting in some stadiums.

The Eagles' pair of aces, right-handers Masahiro Tanaka (4-2, 1.49 ERA) and Hisashi Iwakuma (3-2, 1.72 ERA), have, as usual, been excellent this season, at least until Iwakuma hurt his throwing shoulder and was removed from the roster in late May.

But what must be most disconcerting for the super-competitive Hoshino is the production--or rather lack of production--he is getting from his players with MLB experience. Kaz Matsui joined the Eagles this season after a turbulent injury-plagued seven-year spell in the majors, as did former Yakult Swallows star third baseman Akinori Iwamura, who spent the past four seasons with three MLB organizations.

Matsui and Iwamura, who both averaged .300 or better during their previous stints in NPB, were expected to form a potent left side of the infield for Hoshino. Matsui, who was a perennial All-Star in his nine seasons as the Seibu Lions shortstop from 1995 to 2003, was hitting just .237 with three homers and seven RBIs through 42 games. On June 3, a 4-2 loss to the Yomiuri Giants at Tokyo Dome, "Little" Matsui went 0-for-4 at the dish.

"It's not about the umpires or anything like that, it's about me," said the switch-hitting Matsui, refusing to make excuses for his sub-standard offensive numbers. "It was eight years ago, the last time I played in Japan. There are many new pitchers compared to eight years ago, so I have to adjust to that."

Matsui hit .267 in his major-league career with the Mets, Rockies and Astros, so he understands that more is expected of him back home in Japan. He's 35 now and is considered one of the team leaders.

"I'm not happy with my production but I am enjoying my role on this team," Matsui said.

Matsui's numbers may not be good by any stretch of the imagination, but they look heady compared with Iwamura's season so far. Iwamura, still just 32, was hitting .169 with no homers and one run driven in before Hoshino banished him to the minor leagues on May 14. His average was nearly 100 points below the .267 he also posted in MLB.

"I want him to lose weight," Hoshino huffed as he sent down Iwamura, a two-time World Baseball Classic winner with Japan--not exactly "fat-toad" material but hardly confidence-inspiring stuff.

Throw in Randy Ruiz, a former Minnesota Twin and Toronto Blue Jay, who finds himself on the farm with Iwamura, and the picture doesn't get any rosier. Ruiz hit .266 with a dozen HRs in 81 games for Rakuten last year, but this season he was hitting an anemic .155 with two homers and four RBIs through 17 games when he got sent down May 9.

While Yamasaki is having yet another productive season (.291 average and 22 RBIs to go along with his six HRs), there is just one man on the club with a batting average north of .300--Masato Nakamura (.306 in 98 at-bats through June 5).

Help may be on the way, however. Reports have said the team is on the verge of signing Luis Alfonzo Garcia, a 32-year-old infielder from Guadalajara. Garcia has no MLB experience, which may actually be a bonus after what the Eagles have been through with their other imports, but he shown a lot of power in the minor leagues and in his native Mexico.

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