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Nippon Ham, Yomiuri maintain focus before series opener

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Sapporo It was like the calm before the storm.

Both Japan Series participants — the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and the Yomiuri Giants — went through their final preparations in quite a relaxed manner at Sapporo Dome on Friday afternoon, one day before the 2009 Japan Series begins.

“Just the way we’ve been, we’re filled with a genial atmosphere as if we’re not entering the Japan Series,” Fighters second baseman Kensuke Tanaka said with a smile.

Making his fifth appearance in Japan’s Fall Classic, veteran outfielder Atsunori Inaba knows that it doesn’t help to get too nervous on the sport’s grand stage.

But the Fighters won’t necessarily underestimate the powerful Giants. Rather, expect more of the opposite approach.

“I have the impression that they’re a balanced team,” Tanaka said. “But there will be chances that the Fighters can take advantage of.

“Every single play is going to be big and it could determine the series. So we want to make as few mistakes as possible and at the same time we want to go boldly.”

Inaba confidently said that Nipopn Ham would be fine if it can exhibit the same brand of baseball it has played all season.

“The Fighters have been playing a team game, doing little things, such as bunting,” the 37-year-old Inaba said.

“We’re not a team that wins with long balls. We need to go tenaciously, such as getting on base by drawing walks or do whatever it takes to get on base when you are behind in the pitch count.”

Giants manager Tatsunori Hara, meanwhile, stepped onto the field with a bright face.

Hara, who has guided Yomiuri to a second consecutive Japan Series, said that his squad appears to be in better condition than it was for last year’s NPB championship series against the Saitama Seibu Lions.

“The condition of each player is superior to that of last year’s squad, which is encouraging to me,” said Hara, who served as the skipper for Japan’s World Baseball Classic title-winning squad in March.

The perennial powerhouse Giants, who fell to the Lions in seven games in the 2008 Japan Series, have not grabbed the NPB championship flag since 2002.

Hara said that has been the team’s primary focus since the start of training camp.

“We’ve set our goal there since Feb. 1 (first day of the training camp),” said the 51-year-old Hara, whose Giants squad put an emphasis on fielding, carefully checking the turf and walls, at Sapporo Dome on Friday.

“It wasn’t necessarily an easy road ahead for us. But we’d like to complete the mission, which is to become the best in Japan, with pride and confidence.”

For Game 1, which starts at 6:15 p.m., southpaw Masaru Takeda of Nippon Ham and Yomiuri right-hander Dicky Gonzalez, a 15-game winner, are expected to start.

“It is a fierce batting lineup and they (the Giants) can score from anywhere,” said Takeda, whose 10 wins were second on the club behind ace Yu Darvish (15-5).

“Overall they’ve got good left-handed hitters, so I want to concentrate on holding them by pitching carefully as I did in the season.”