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Fighters shun theatrics even on grandest stage

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Doing nothing fancy is a catchword for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

And it’s not going to change a bit as they enter the NPB championship games against the Yomiuri Giants this weekend.

The Pacific League pennant winner and Climax Series champion has earned a ticket to the Japan Series for the first time in two years — and the third time in four years — by carrying out what it was supposed to do throughout the year, including the postseason.

One of the biggest strengths of the Fighters team that advanced to the Japanese version of the Fall Classic is the team-first attitude that was built particularly after it moved its franchise from Tokyo to Sapporo back in 2004.

“We just do what we’re normally doing.” We heard this phrase over and over from the Fighters all year.

Even during the Climax Series second stage last week, in which Nippon Ham defeated the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in five games, it was still the case.

“We just tried to do what we are supposed to do,” said Hichori Morimoto, when asked about the team making sacrifice bunts effectively in the series, after Game 4 of the second stage.

Speaking of the bunt, on this team even cleanup hitter Shinji Takahashi does it, and the infielder’s words and humble behavior speaks for the entire team’s characteristics.

As a matter of fact, the 31-year-old Takahashi doesn’t even think of himself a cleanup batter. He always tells the media that he is just “the fourth batter” in the lineup.

Takahashi, who is listed as a catcher but played at first base for most of the season because of his phenomenal batting skills, doesn’t mind sacrificing himself by doing little things such as bunting or hitting to the opposite side of the field when there is a runner on base.

In the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1, Takahashi stepped up to the plate with the Fighters down 8-5. Obviously, if he hit a homer here, the game would have been tied.

But he never thought about that and the only thing he had in mind was to get the momentum going.

Takahashi drew a walk, which led to an eventual walk-off grand slam by Terrmel Sledge.

“You never know, maybe Sledge might hit in the cleanup spot,” Takahashi jokingly responded when asked how he wants to contribute as the cleanup batter in the Japan Series.

“I just want to do the best job I can. I will do whatever it takes to help the team win, whether it’s a bunt or anything.”