J-SLANTED: Opportunity Knocks

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By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Contributor

After giving up five runs during the first two innings of his first MLB career start, it certainly didn’t appear that Yu Darvish was ready for the spotlight. But hasty judgments, I’ve found, are often come to based on a lack of knowledge, or a lack of experience. See, from that third inning onward, over the next 31 innings of work, Darvish has given up only three earned runs. Over that stretch, he’s won four games, sports a 2.18 ERA and has fanned 33 batters.

In a word, impressive.

But I don’t want to make hasty judgments. They’ve never made me look smart. Darvish has pitched in five MLB games. While he’s looked unhittable recently, he has another 18-20 starts to look forward to while pitching under a cloud of historical precedent that tells us most Japanese pitching imports struggle once the league adjusts.

But Darvish has a certain popstar cockiness working hand-in-hand with the kind of stuff capable of dominating the Yankees and Blue Jays–no matter how many times they’ve seen it.

Speaking of stuff and seeing it many times, Ichiro Suzuki is at that stage and status of his career where every hit seemingly puts him ahead of some other person on the all-time career hits list. He just passed Ozzie Smith a few nights ago. Some of the upcoming HOFers he’ll soon be passing? Frank Thomas this week. Joe Morgan in June. Reggie Jackson a few weeks after the All-Star break. And if he continues to play well, he’ll be looking at catching Ted Williams by the end of the season.

Milwaukee Brewers starting firstbaseman Mat Gamel will likely miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL. This devastating news for fans of the Brew Crew could potentially come with a sliver of a silver lining. Gamel’s injury opens up the position for others on the team, namely Travis Ishikawa, who will, at least for the moment, assume the starter’s role.

Ishikawa

Ishikawa is a slick infielder with a terrific glove. At the plate is another story. While he’s hit for a decent .261 career average, it’s the fact he has limited power holding him back from becoming an everyday player. In 632 career at-bats, he’s hit 17 homers. It’s tough to win when your first baseman hits too many singles and not enough homeruns. Dodgers fans have had this problem for five years. In fact, James Loney is a pretty good comparison for Ishikawa.

The 28-year-old Ishikawa has shown flashes at the plate in part time duty, but has struggled when promoted. He does have a pair of homers this year, but was only batting .172 heading into Friday’s game against San Diego.

Outfielder Corey Hart is now the incumbent backup first baseman, but the Brewers called up switch-hitting second baseman Brooks Conrad from Triple A Nashville. Conrad, who has pro experience at every infield position, was hitting .400 with five home runs in 15 games for Nashville. This is a good move as it allows Conrad an opportunity to push Ishikawa for the starter’s job and gives the Brewers the flexibility to platoon the pair if necessary.

Of course, if Hart sees a lot of time at first, then that could potentially benefit Norichika Aoki, who has shown that he can hit at the MLB level. Unfortunately, he’s been stuck behind Hart, who is hitting .280 with six home runs, reigning MVP Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez (.802 OPS), and Nyjer Morgan. Morgan has struggled while Aoki has played well mostly as a pinch hitter (.269 average, .790 OPS). But in three starts this year, Aoki has gone 2-10 with a homerun and a pair of walks.

Kurt Suzuki (Photo by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

If Braun’s Achilles injury lingers, perhaps Aoki can get in the lineup on a more regular basis. Remember, this is a guy with two Japan batting titles, a career .330 average, and four seasons above .340. And he’s in the prime of his career at 30 years of age.

Sadly, Tsuyoshi Wada will undergo season-ending elbow ligament reconstruction surgery, delaying his debut at least a year. Wada has been sidelined since the last week of spring training. The 31-year-old signed an $8.15 million, two-year contract in December. He made only two appearances during the spring because of soreness in his elbow. During his NPB career, Wada was 107-61 with a 3.13 ERA and 1,329 strikeouts in 210 games (207 starts) over nine seasons with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.

On the brighter side, X-rays on Kurt Suzuki’s left hand came back negative. Suzuki was struck by a 90 mph fastball during the A’s game against the Red Sox earlier this week. The 28-year-old catcher has hit poorly this year (.550 OPS), continuing a three-year trend of steadily declining results. But the fact that he is listed as day-to-day instead of being sidelined for a few weeks with a fracture is a positive. Hopefully his hitting doesn’t decline any further.

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