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John E. Gibson

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Bird of prey: Iwakuma leads Eagles to new heights

by John E. Gibson (May 31, 2008)

For their first three seasons, the Rakuten Eagles were birds of pray--putting their hands together and hoping for wins when they took the field.

But thanks to their ace Hisashi Iwakuma, the fourth-year Eagles have confidence and no longer look like sitting ducks in the Pacific League.

They're serious when they say they have an eye on the postseason. And Iwakuma is leading the transformation as third-place Rakuten is three games over .500--a franchise best at this point in the season.

Iwakuma, who has been slowed by a string of injuries in recent years, has thrown himself back into the spotlight this season with his numbers and his fire. He leads the PL with seven wins and is third in ERA at 2.05. More than anything, though, he has helped stabilize a pitching staff that has made fledgling a hobby.

The Tokyo native, who pitched a fit when his former team, the Kintetsu Buffaloes, and Orix Blue Wave merged after the 2004 season, refused to wear the new uniform and bolted for Rakuten.

Now in his ninth year, he is giving opponents fits.

"He's a different guy," the Eagles' Rick Short said before Thursday's game at Tokyo Dome. "There's a different look in his eyes than I've seen in the past.

"I think he won 15 games [twice] when he was in Osaka [with Kintetsu], and to me, he looks like that guy again," said Short, in his third year with Rakuten.

Iwakuma was 42-21 in four seasons with Kintetsu, but went 9-15 in his first year with the expansion Eagles.

Second-year pitching coach Makoto Kito said the right-hander's racking up wins now because he's racking up strikes without relying on his fastball.

"His control of his offspeed has improved," Kito said. "Before, when he threw offspeed pitches it was ball, ball, ball, and then he'd have to challenge hitters with strikes and got knocked around.

"Now he's got better control, even with his fastball, and batters can't sit on pitches."

Kito said winning has sparked increased enthusiasm, but just being part of the success is inspiring for Iwakuma, who was 15-2 in 2004 with Kintetsu.

"He has lot of confidence in his stuff this season and that's really a huge part of it," Kito said. "But he was also dealing with injuries last year and the year before that.

"He didn't really contribute a lot. I think he feels a sense of leadership now and you can see that in the way in goes about things."

Always considered Rakuten's ace, the 27-year-old Iwakuma has just six wins over the past two years, spending most of that time dealing with a bad pitching shoulder and elbow issues. His health is no longer an issue this year.

"I feel really good now," said Iwakuma, who underwent elbow surgery in the offseason. He added that his focus now is simply on performance.

"I just work on what I have to do in getting ready and then go to the mound. I don't focus too much on wins and losses, all I can do is go out and do my job as a starter.

"I'm doing well now, but I want to be consistent throughout the year."

Iwakuma said Rakuten's grumpy skipper Katsuya Nomura has praised him repeatedly. Nomura, whose nightly jibes--win or lose--are as good as standup comedy, has boosted Iwakuma's belief in himself with the support.

"The manager has faith in me and so I take that confidence to the mound every time I throw," Iwakuma said.

Confidence will be key if the Eagles can continue their transformation into true birds of prey.


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