OSAKA — Lately, it seems for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Fighters began the last two seasons with a number of new faces and most people predicting dour times for the Sapporo ballclub.
After dismantling the Orix Buffaloes 7-2 in Game 2 of the first stage of the Pacific League Climax Series, they find themselves — just like last season — in the second stage of the playoffs with a chance to advance to their third straight Japan Series.
“I think last year they were saying the same things,” pitcher Brian Sweeney said referring to early predictions the Fighters would miss the playoffs. “You just put that in the back of your mind. Confidently we know going into it, we’re going to put up a good fight.”
While not one of the more glamorous teams in the NPB, Nippon Ham has been one of the more consistent over the last three seasons.
Since 2004 the Fighters have won two Pacific League pennants, advanced to the climax series three times, won the Pa League Climax Series twice and captured a Japan Series championship.
Pitching and defense have been the main ingredients over the past few seasons. Ace Yu Darvish went 16-4 with a 1.88 ERA and heads a pitching staff that led the PL in team ERA.
Do-it-all pitcher Sweeney finished the regular season 12-5 with a 3.48 ERA in 28 appearances.
“It’s been fun,” Sweeney said. “I’m happy with what happened. But we’re not done. We got a job to finish and that’s what we’re here to do.”
Ryan Glynn and Masaru Takeda have also turned in strong starts late in the season and Micheal Nakamura has been solid in the closer role despite battling injuries earlier in the year.
The Fighters have also prided themselves on the “team-first” atmosphere they’ve cultivated in their locker room. Earlier in the year, Sweeney described the squad as a tight knit family that picks each other up.
Against Orix in Game 2 they rallied around the injured Atsunori Inaba, who missed the series clincher with a leg injury.
“Inaba-san felt worse than anyone (about missing the game),” second baseman Kensuke Tanaka said. “Everybody knows that. Until he gets back, we would like to keep winning.”
They’ve found ways to win despite finishing last in the Pacific League in runs and home runs for two straight seasons.
While Nippon Ham doesn’t put many balls over the outfield walls, they turn good baserunning and an abundance of sacrifice bunts and timely hits into enough runs for their superb pitching staff to work with.
“It’s not a really overwhelming lineup, but like yesterday once they start hitting they become threatening,” Orix manager Daijiro Oishi said before Game 2.
The Fighters also back up their pitchers with the NPB’s best defense. The Fighters are excellent in the field and lethal when opposing teams make mistakes as the Buffaloes found out on Sunday.
“We had hoped to focus our efforts on offense since Komatsu was pitching today,” Oishi told Kyodo News is reference to his team’s dismal offensive performance. “Nippon Ham played the way they had intended.”
Despite their success the Fighters (other than Darvish, and outfielders Inaba and Hichori Morimoto) have mostly, undeservedly, flown under the mainstream radar.
Although what Nippon lacks in star power, it makes up for in quality.
“I think we do have superstars,” Sweeney said. “We have guys that are the best in the league. But we also have guys that know what to do in their role. One through nine in the lineup, they have an idea of what they’re doing. One through six in the rotation and everybody in the bullpen knows their job and they do it well.
“When everybody does their job, that’s winning chemistry.”
Despite their consistency on the field, the Fighters have had a number of changes in the dugout and on the field during their recent run, losing Michihiro Ogasawara and manager Trey Hillman among others.
What hasn’t changed is the number of unsung players — especially in the playoffs — such as pitcher Tomoya Yagi in 2006 and slugger Fernando Seguignol last season, that have stepped up and delivered clutch performances at opportune times.
This season it was pitcher Shugo Fujii silencing the powerful Orix offense with a strong performance in the series clincher while Tomochika Tsuboi chipped in with a four-for-four day to spark the offense against the Buffaloes’ best pitcher.
“We had our work cut out for us in facing (Satoshi) Komatsu, but Fujii rose to the occasion better than I even expected,” Nippon Ham manager Masataka Nashida told Kyodo News following Game 2 against Orix. “He got plenty of run support and it was a good game for us. We finished in third but we have a chance now to reach the top and become champions.”