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Chunichi Dragons are the Central League's Unlikely Frontrunners

With slugger Sho Nakata making an impression at the plate, the Chunichi Dragons are in unfamiliar territory, in first place for the first time since May 2016.

The Chunichi Dragons are the surprise frontrunners in the Central League.

Pitcher Takahiro Matsuba contributed both from the mound and the plate on Wednesday, April 10 as the Dragons beat the Yokohama DeNA BayStars 6-1 for their fifth straight win.

As of Thursday, the Dragons have a record of seven wins, three losses and one tie for a 1½-game lead over Yokohama. They are on top of the standings for the first time since May 10, 2016, eight years ago. 

They were the only NPB team remaining that hadn't been in sole possession of first place since the Reiwa Era started on May 1, 2019.

Lefty Matsuba allowed just one run over 5⅔ innings, had two hits and drove in a run at Yokohama Stadium.

Matsuba (1-0) laid down a bunt single that loaded the bases in the second when Chunichi scored two runs and singled in a run in the third when the visitors took a commanding 5-0 lead.

Former BayStar Seiya Hosokawa is off to a good start with three homers already. 

Chunichi Dragons
Seiya Hosokawa has sparked the Dragons with three home runs through April 10. (©SANKEI)

Nakata Providing Solid Contributions for the Dragons

Meanwhile, controversial slugger Sho Nakata is also off to a decent start as he looks to resurrect his career.

In 10 games batting cleanup, Nakata has 10 hits and eight RBIs, including two homers. That's been a huge boost to the Chunichi offense.

Nakata was a standout with the Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters between 2009 and 2020 but got into trouble in 2021 when he was suspended indefinitely for committing violence against a teammate.

Chunichi Dragons
Chunichi Dragons slugger Sho Nakata hits an RBI single in the third inning against the Yokohama DeNA BayStars on April 9 at Yokohama Stadium. (©SANKEI)

Chunichi manager Kazuyoshi Tatsunami gave a tip of the hat to Nakata.

"We're scoring runs in a different way than we did last season," Tatsunami told Nikkan Sports. "The players have a different feeling when they step up to the plate. Having a player at No 4 like Tanaka is a big factor."

Chunichi Dragons
Dragons manager Kazuyoshi Tatsunami is in his third season at the helm. (©SANKEI)

Nakata played for the Yomiuri Giants between 2021 and 2023, but he never seemed to adjust under the glare of playing for Japan's most popular team.

More Than a Decade Without a Central League Pennant

The last time the Dragons won the Central League pennant was way back in 2011 when they were managed by Hiromitsu Ochiai, a man many consider to be a baseball genius with his unorthodox playing and managerial style.

Ochiai, an NPB Hall of Fame member, managed the Dragons from 2004-11. He was a crafty bench boss and the Dragons thrived under his guidance.

Chunichi Dragons
Former Dragons manager Hiromitsu Ochiai guided the Central League club to five Japan Series appearances during his tenure. He led the team from 2004-11. (©SANKEI)

Ochiai was known for his "Oreryu" baseball style, which basically translates as Baseball My Way. He didn't adhere to traditional Japanese notions of relentless practice and always relying on the sacrifice bunt.

Tatsunami was a player under Ochiai so maybe some of that "Oreryu" style is coming through.

In 2010 and 2011, the Dragons went to the Japan Series both years, losing to the Chiba Lotte Marines and Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, respectively.

The last time they won the Japan Series was under Ochiai in 2007 when they beat the Trey Hillman-managed Fighters 4 games to 1.

In 2006, the script was flipped when the Fighters beat the Dragons by the same number of games.

Chunichi went through many years of futility after it reached the Central League Climax Series in 2012. The team had a lost decade between 2013 and 2023, posting a winning record just once, going 60-55-5 in 2020.

It's been a rough run for Chunichi's loyal fan base in Nagoya and the surrounding area. Now the fans are hoping for a return to past glory.

It's just a shoe!

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Author: Jim Armstrong

The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for over 25 years. You can find his articles on SportsLook.

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