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Fighters keep focus on PL pennant after Nashida bombshell

by Jason Coskrey

Bobby Keppel’s translator stood at the ready, but the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher didn’t need him.

The tone in the room said it all.

Manager Masataka Nashida was addressing the team, but something was off. There was a stillness in the air, and Nashida, by most accounts fairly even-keel most of the time, was more quiet than usual.

“I understood what was going on,” Keppel said. “You could see by the expression. It was pretty simple. You don’t need to know the language to understand what was going on there. You could just tell by the atmosphere in the room.”

The manager was telling the team what he would tell the world a few hours later, that he was stepping down at the end of this season.

“It was like a scene from a movie or something,” Nashida said of the team’s reaction at the news conference announcing his resignation on Thursday. “Their mouths were open and they looked surprised.”

The timing of Nashida’s news, however, probably could’ve been better.

The Fighters are in a fight with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks for the Pacific League pennant, and now have a new distraction to deal with.

Teams react in many different ways when faced with this situation. For some, it’s galvanizing, but for others, the litany of constant questions and uncertainty can be damaging.

“We can only do our best, that’s all,” Sho Nakata told reporters on Thursday at Tokyo Dome.

After Nashida’s remarks to the team, the veteran players — many of whom were around in 2007 when manager Trey Hillman left in somewhat similar fashion — wasted little time in trying to get everyone on the same page.

“After the full team meeting, some of the leaders on our team threw a players-only meeting,” Keppel said. “Just to stick together. We could be down about this, because we all care about him so much, and they wanted to throw a meeting just to keep our focus straight. We’ve got a lot of games still in front of us and our goal still is to win the pennant.”

There had been rumors of Nashida’s impending departure in the media, still the announcement caught most of the players off guard.

“Honestly, I was shocked,” third baseman Eiichi Koyano told Nikkan Sports. “I’ve always wanted to make him the best manager in the nation, but I’ve got even more motivation now.”

The surprise wasn’t limited to the Nippon Ham locker room either.

“The bad speculation has come true,” Hawks pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada told Nikkan Sports. “Although we are on different teams, I have mixed emotions. But the season is still going on right now. I’m sure the Fighters will come at us with their best, and I will pitch at full strength against them.”

Staying focused on the task at hand remains one of the Fighters’ biggest challenges. With the speculation about Nashida’s future now over, they want to focus their efforts on chasing down the league-leading Hawks in the pennant race.

The players seemed determined not to let the news distract them and want to deliver the Japan Series title that eluded their manager in 2001, with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, and 2009 when Nippon Ham fell to the Yomiuri Giants in six games.

“We want to win this pennant and we want to win the championship for him,” Keppel said. “That will be a great send-off for him.”

At his news conference, Nashida was confident the team would stay on the right track.

“I told them to fight through until the end as part of the Fighters organization,” Nashida said. “They really do understand what I think, and can anticipate what kinds of signs I will give them. So hopefully we can keep winning and grab the Japan Series title which I have not won.”