Pitching riches stoke Tohoku Rakuten’s ambitions



SENDAI — One of Japanese baseball’s marquee pitchers will be missing from the second stage of the Pacific League Climax Series.

No matter, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles are bringing a spare.

Offense may have stolen the show in Rakuten’s victory over the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in stage one, but Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka showed Rakuten’s true strength is on the mound.

Rakuten’s two star pitchers put on a show in the first round, likely making the absence of Hokkaido Nippon Ham ace Yu Darvish loom larger in the minds of Fighters fans. Darvish is expected to miss the entire second stage due to injury.

Both Eagles pitchers recorded complete-game victories and left the Hawks looking hapless as they sparked a series sweep in stage one.

“Our plan now is to go to Sapporo, win against Nippon Ham and bring the Japan Series to Sendai,” Iwakuma said.

Iwakuma helped get the Eagles going in the franchise’s first playoff game on Friday, going the distance in Rakuten’s 11-4 triumph in Game 1.

“In such an important game, it’s ideal that your main guy goes the distance,” pitching coach Yoshinori Sato said. “He certainly lived up to our expectations.”

Pitching in front of a frenzied crowd, the Rakuten ace was in control for most of the game, only running into trouble in the fourth inning, during which he yielded four runs — two the direct result of an error.

“I’m extremely happy that I was able to win the most important game, Game 1,” Iwakuma said. “The atmosphere of the stadium was really great and it helped me push myself from the beginning.

“I’m pleased most about us having won. “We want to keep this momentum and march into Sapporo.”

Even as his pitched count soared, Iwakuma was able to maintain his focus and convince manager Katsuya Nomura to give the bullpen the night off.

“We thought of pulling him while the pitch count was lower, considering his next game,” Nomura said. But he had the will to continue. When I asked him, he strongly replied, ‘I’ll go’ “

There were a few signs of rust at times, but overall the Eagles hurler didn’t seem affected by the long layoff between starts. Iwakuma had last pitched for the Eagles on Oct. 6.

“I was prepared and did not feel any effects of the layoff,” Iwakuma said.

With the stage set for the sweep, Tanaka gave a masterful performance in the clincher, dominating the Softbank lineup for nine innings.

“All game long I had it in my mind to wrap up the series today and I was thinking about going to Sapporo,” Tanaka said.

It was more or less the same thing he’d done to the Hawks all season. Tanaka entered the game with a 2-0 record and 1.00 ERA in the regular season against Softbank. Including the postseason, Tanaka gave up just (three) runs against the Hawks in five starts.

“I wasn’t nervous as all,” Tanaka said. “I just pitched as I did during the regular season.”

He seemed to get stronger as the game wore on, continuing to hit high marks on the speed gun late in the game. Which left the Hawks’ hopes more dim with each pitch.

“I wasn’t paying attention to the speed gun,” Tanaka said. “I was just trying to get the Softbank batters out.”

The second stage is set to begin on Wednesday at Sapporo Dome. A series victory there would mean the first two games on the Japan Series would be held in Sendai.

“I certainly want to pitch here again in the Japan Series in front of the home fans,” Tanaka said.