Despite ace Kazumi Saitoh’s struggles and shoulder woes, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks are the class of the Pacific League.
The Fukuoko SoftBank Hawks finished up April on a eight-game winning streak and have kept on rolling as their current 25-15-2 record tops the Pacific League by two games over Lotte. How have the Hawks soared to the top of the PL? Plenty of hitting and tons of pitching.
This is a system that produced Kenji Johjima and Tad Iguchi; where Pedro Feliciano and Tony Batista went to get their careers back on track; and where former big leaguer stars Wille Upshaw, Rich Gossage and Kevin Mitchell once toiled.
The highlights of the club’s 2007 season to date:
- Veteran outfielder Naoyuki Ohmura, coming off a season in which he tied his career high with 165 hits, is enjoying a huge start, currently pacing the league with a .365 BA. Pretty impressive for a 31-year-old career .280 hitter. In 35 games, he has 54 hits, but he’s very much a singles hitter which just four XBHs among them. He’s produced just 15 RBI, but has struck out just 16 times. And he’s off and running again, tied for seventh in the league with five steals.
- Yuichi Honda, a 22-year-old second baseman who saw limited action in his rookie season last year, is burning up the basepaths with 10 steals already, good for second in the PL. Unfortunately, he has no pop (one homer) and strikes out too much (34 times in 39 games).
- Third baseman Hiroki Kokubo, a 35-year-old veteran, is a serious power hitter, the author of 321 career homers and two 40+ homer seasons. This year, he’s up to his usual tricks with 12 jacks, good for third in the league, and 34 RBI, which places him second. He’s been particularly solid with runners in scoring position, batting .349.
- Outfielder Nobuhiko Matsunaka, the Triple Crown winner in 2004, has put up great offensive numbers for several seasons, but the 33-year-old was left off the recently announced national team. He’s again among the league leaders with nine homers and 31 RBI, but he’s batting just .260 so far in 2007.
- Outfielder Hitoshi Tamura, 30, has bounced back from another injury-plagued year in which he saw action in just 39 games. In 36 games this season, he’s scored 24 runs and hit .281 with a .355 OBP, and ranks among the top 10 in RBI.
- Former big leaguer IF/OF Brian Buchanan, who spent last year between the Reds’ Triple-A team and St. Paul of the Independent Northern League, decided to try his hand in Japan and so far, he’s done fairly well, ranking among the home run and RBI leaders. The 33-year-old is hitting just .259, but a .344 mark with RISP has helped be among the most productive players in the league. The former Yankee first round pick, perhaps most famous for being part of the Chuck Knoblauch trade, is not exactly showing much in the way of a batting eye, however. He’s drawn just five walks while striking out 44 times ‘ tops in the Pacific League.
- Outfielder Hiroshi Shibahara is showing more pop (.460 slugging) than ever before. Considering he’ll be 33 next week and owns a lifetime .385 slugging percentage, this is a significant uptick.
- On the mound, starter Nagisa Arakaki seeking to break the career high of 13 wins he set last year, is currently tied for eighth with three wins, and has a 3.19 ERA. The righty, who turned 27 last week, inspired a scout to commit suicide when he learned that Arakaki wouldn’t sign with the team he worked for.
- Toshiya Sugiuchi, a 26-year-old southpaw, has bounced back nicely after an off season in 2006. He’s currently second in the league with a 2.16 ERA and with a 5-1 record is tied for second in wins. Not bad considering he won just seven times all last season. He’s already thrown a pair of shutouts this season, the most recent coming Tuesday when he blanked the Ham Fighters on a six-hitter, fanning 10 and walking just one.
- Tsuyoshi Wada is 4-1, tied for fourth in wins, and his 2.53 ERA ranks him eighth. This 26-year-old lefty just keeps getting better.
- Rick Guttormson, 30, a career minor leaguer until he decided to come to Japan in 2005, has been excellent in the two past two years, even throwing the first no-hitter in Japanese interleague play history last season. He ranks in the top 10 in ERA.
- Closer Takahiro Mahara, a 25-year-old righty, continues to improve, with a league-leading 12 saves in 16 appearances.
- The fact that ace starter Kazumi Saito is struggling and dealing with shoulder fatigue makes the Hawks’ run even more remarkable. You may recall that Tim McLeod, in his excellent piece Drafting Japanese, described Saito as ‘the man’ now that Dice-K is pitching for the Bosox.
Foreign Player Watch: No, he’s not on Fukuoka, but do you remember Jeff Liefer? The former White Sox first baseman who was last seen in the majors when the Indians outrighted him to Triple-A in October 2005, signed with the Seibu Lions in December 2005. Now in his second season in Japan, the 32-year-old is not doing enough to warrant any attention back home. A DH/PH type now, Liefer played in just 49 games last year, scoring 24 runs off of 36 hits (23 of which went for extra bases, hence his robust .601 SLG). But he struck out 35 times last year and this season, he’s struggling with a .235 mark in the early going. It appears that Liefer won’t be parlaying his Asian experiences into a ticket back to the majors.