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John E. Gibson

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Swallows aim to purge memories of 2011

by John E. Gibson (Apr 5, 2012)

The injury bug didn't just bite the Tokyo Yakult Swallows last season, it chewed them up.

And while most of the players have healed up and the team has added depth to its pitching staff, there are already issues this season.

South Korean closer Lim Chang Yang is still working out the kinks after a couple of injuries, and Kentaro Kyuko--a Central League rookie of the year candidate most of last season--is still recovering from offseason surgery on his nonpitching hand.

That didn't slow the Swallows over opening weekend, when they snatched two of three from the Yomiuri Giants at Tokyo Dome. But the team had a good start last season before the Chunichi Dragons climbed the standings to win their second straight league title.

Pitching helped Yakult get the better of Yomiuri, and its biggest slugger emphasized the importance of the staff.

"We have a great pitching staff," Wladimir Balentien told The Daily Yomiuri before Wednesday's game against the Hanshin Tigers at Jingu Stadium.

"Last year we had injuries all over, but those guys are the key. As long as they stay healthy, we can compete," said Balentien, whose CL-high 31 homers helped Yakult lead the league in runs last year.

The Swallows, who last season spent the end of May to the first week of October in first place before nosediving, find it difficult to purge the memories of a second-half collapse that left them the bridesmaids. And even though they lost All-Star Norichika Aoki to free agency, they're confident they can end the regular season in celebration.

"Pitching-wise, I think we've got one of the better overall staffs in the entire league," said Tony Barnette, a third-year reliever who saved the team's first two wins.

"The second half of last season was kind of a letdown for all of us," said Barnette, who began his first season with the Swallows as a starter and had 54 strikeouts in 47 innings last season in a relief role.

"Even when we got in the playoffs, we weren't very excited because we took second place. We thought we were a first-place team.

"I thought we were better than Chunichi--I thought we could have won, but it just happens that way. Injuries hamper any team, and if we can stay relatively injury-free and minimize the aches and pains, I think we 've got a great shot."

Barnette also said he's counting on the 35-year-old Lim to return to form.

"I wouldn't call Lim having an injury. I would just say age is playing a factor and there are certain things that just aren't working correctly so he's just working that out," Barnette said.

"But once he comes back, we've got Lim, [Takehiko] Oshimoto, [Kenichi] Matsumoto, Kyuko when he gets back up [Ryo] Hirai, [Ryo] Hidaka, I think all those guys are going to play huge roles out of the bullpen for us."

Barnette pointed to the Giants' bolstered staff and the always-pitching-rich Dragons as teams that figure to impact offense in the CL this season.

"This league is turning more into a pitchers league," Barnette said. "You've got guys switching league like [Toshiya] Sugiuchi and D.J. Houlton [both from the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks] and it's kind of unheard of. In the past, this has been known as a hitters league and nobody wants to come to a hitters league if you're a pitcher.

"I think the pitching in this league is going to hold true, and it's going to be good."


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