SAPPORO — Yu Darvish and Yoshihisa Naruse were arguably the two best pitchers in Japanese baseball this season.
Lotte faces the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in Game 5 of the Pacific League Climax Series’ second stage
on Thursday night.
So it only seems appropriate that the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ace will face the Chiba Lotte Marines’ young superstar in Game 5 of the second stage of the Pacific League Climax Series at Sapporo Dome on Thursday night to determine which squad will advance to the Japan Series.
“There’s nothing left but to go out and do it,” Darvish said. “I want them (the Fighters) to leave it to me in the end and I will do my best not to lose our manager’s final game.”
There was little doubt that if the series went to a fifth and deciding game that Darvish (15-5) would be on the hill for the Fighters. Anticipating that, the Marines took a bit of a risk and held Naruse (16-1) out of Game 4. The gamble paid off as Lotte staved off elimination with a 5-1 win to set up the season’s marquee matchup.
“It’s going to be Naruse and we’re going to pitch Darvish,” Fighters manager Trey Hillman said. “It’s two great young pitchers. This is good for baseball in Japan. This is good for baseball. Obviously from a managerial standpoint I wish we would’ve won last night, but there’s at least 48 hours more of building on the excitement and anticipation from last night’s ball game.”
Darvish was a 15-game winner in the regular season and led both leagues with 210 strikeouts and trailed only Naruse with a 1.82 ERA. He struck out eight in a complete-game effort in Game 1 to lead the Fighters to the win,. He is 3-1-1 against Lotte this year, including the playoffs. Darvish one-hit the Marines in a 2-0 win on July 7 in Chiba.
“He’s a very good pitcher,” Marines manager Bobby Valentine said of Darvish. “We’re going to have to make him throw us some pitches that we can hit. If we don’t and we swing at the pitches that are balls, he’s very, very difficult to hit.
“I think we’re capable of scoring off of him. I mean, after all, his ERA wasn’t zero this year, was it?”
Naruse has emerged as one of the best pitchers in baseball in just his second season with the Marines. The 22-year-old was on fire this year, leading Japanese baseball with a 1.81 ERA and finished 12-0 in the PL.
He seemed to pitch his best games against the Fighters. In those four games, Naruse was 4-0 against the defending champions with a 1.55 ERA and two complete games.
“He doesn’t make many command and control mistakes,” Hillman said of Naruse. “His deceptiveness is off the charts. He is extremely deceptive with his delivery and hiding the ball. It’s difficult to get pitch recognition. That’s what compounds the problem, with hitters not knowing when to unload the barrels and what to swing at.”
Naruse struck out nine and was aided by a Tomoya Satozaki home run to beat Darvish in their last meeting on Sept. 12 in Chiba. Darvish fanned 14 in that game.
“Before, it was a win with meaning because it added to my confidence,” Naruse said.
However, both pitchers agree that their last meeting means little now that it’s the playoffs. Especially because Darvish has been in this situation before and Naruse will be getting his first taste of the Nippon Ham fans, who are loud, passionate and can literally make the building shake, in a playoff atmosphere.
“I think Naruse will have a tough time pitching his kind of game in front of such a big crowd,” Darvish said. “As for me, I can pitch my game.”
Naruse agreed with Darvish to an extent but the 16-game winner came up with a simple solution.
“As far as the crowd goes, it wasn’t totally full,” Naruse said, referring to his last start at Sapporo Dome when he threw a complete-game shutout in Lotte’s 2-0 win on Aug 19. “So I don’t really know what it will be like. This is different than the regular season.
“But if I hold them scoreless, then I should be able to win.”