SAPPORO — The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters are facing some serious issues as their Climax Series gets underway on Wednesday at Sapporo Dome.
Issues such as the absence of 15-game-winner Yu Darvish, who has been suffering from right shoulder strain and lower back pain, and their second-stage opponents, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, who will march into Hokkaido with a lot of momentum carried over from the first stage.
But for the players, there is nothing they can do about those things.
They’re simply trying to go about their business as usual and trying to play their usual Fighters brand of baseball.
“We’re relaxed, as usual,” outfielder Atsunori Inaba said with a smile after the team’s workout at Sapporo Dome on Tuesday afternoon. “Everybody is swinging their bats pretty comfortably.”
The majority of the Fighters’ main players tuned up in the Phoenix League in Miyazaki during the layoff after the regular season.
Asked if the Fighters’ starting nine has some jitters as they get set to play in a series which determines who reaches the Japan Series, the 37-year-old replied, “I think that both teams may have some nerves, but at the same time you don’t want to become too tense because it doesn’t help you.
“So we want to just go out there not thinking too much and it’ll be great if we can finish ahead as a result.”
As for Darvish being out for the whole series, every single member of the ballclub agreed that it hurts their quest for another Japan Series appearance.
But at the same time, the Fighters are confident about the other members of their pitching staff.
“He’s the best pitcher in Japan. Of course it hurts,” slugger Terrmel Sledge said of Darvish. “But we’ve had these kind of injuries, and most of the time when we had guys like that, another guy stepped up. So we have confidence in the rest of our pitching staff.”
For Game 1, the Eagles will send Satoshi Nagai (13-7 this season), one of the three best starters on the team, to the hill, while Nippon Ham will start Masaru Takeda, who was 5-1 with a 2.00 ERA against Rakuten during the regular season.
Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro “Ma-kun” Tanaka are projected to start in Game 2 and 3, respectively.
“Iwakuma and Ma-kun are pitching in the second and third games, so hopefully we’d like to win the first game,” said Fighters manager Masataka Nashida, who announced that one of the team’s best set-up men, Yoshinori Tateyama, will be taken off the roster due to a strained right leg.
Inaba said the Fighters, who have a one-win advantage in the second stage, are aware of Rakuten’s three best hurlers, as all of them can go the distance. Not to mention that Iwakuma and Tanaka have experienced international ball, such as during the 2009 World Baseball Classic, and know how to pitch in important games.
“It’ll be hard for us to make consecutive hits,” said Inaba, who was also on the WBC roster this past spring. “So we have to capitalize on a rare chance, otherwise it’ll be tough to score multiple runs.
Inaba also talked about Rakuten’s outgoing skipper Katsuya Nomura, who was told by the club that it wouldn’t re-sign the 74-year-old manager after this season and that the situation is giving the Eagles an emotional boost.
Inaba was mentored by Nomura for four seasons with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in the late 1990s.
Inaba said that he would miss Nomura, yet it won’t affect his performance in the second stage.
“The Fighters can’t go to the Japan Series if they don’t win,” Inaba said. “Hopefully, I’d like to show how much I’ve grown up (to Nomura).”
Game 1 will start at 6:15 p.m. on Wednesday.