SAPPORO – True, it is a best-of-three series. But it looks like the first game will be the pivotal battle.
With the first stage of the Pacific League Climax Series getting under way on Saturday, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and Seibu Lions took the field at Sapporo Dome for a final tune-up on Friday.
“It’s tough to narrow it down to one player,” Fighters skipper Masataka Nashida said when asked who the key player would be for his team in the series. “But I’d have to say it’s going to be (Yu) Darvish, because he’s the Fighters’ ace pitcher. So I expect nothing but a positive outcome from him.”
Unlike Nashida, who is stepping down at the end of the season, Seibu manager Hisanobu Watanabe didn’t designate an individual player as his key guy.
“Baseball is a team sport,” Watanabe said. “So in that respect, everybody is our key man.”
Watanabe did, however, refer to a single player when asked who he is most aware of on the opposing side, although he stopped short of saying the actual name.
“Who we mark is . . . I think everybody knows who,” he said. “That’s the pitcher who will throw in the first game. If we can do some damage to him, we’ll be able to grab the momentum.”
The Fighters will send Darvish to the hill, while Seibu starts right-hander Hideaki Wakui for Game 1, which begins at 2 p.m.
Wakui, in contrast with Darvish, struggled in 2011, posting a 9-12 record (2.93 ERA, 2-3 against the Fighters).
Darvish arguably had the best season of his career with an 18-6 record (1.44 ERA, 276 strikeouts). But he was 1-1 against the Lions in the season and gave up a career-worst seven runs on Opening Day in April.
Nashida said he was slightly worried after Darvish’s performance in the season opener. But he seems to have absolute trust in the tall right-hander, who is rumored to go to the majors through the posting system and could be pitching his last game in Japan on Saturday.
“If he performs as he usually does, I think he can hold anyone, including the Seibu offense,” Nashida said. “Darvish has got so many weapons in his arsenal.”
Seibu was second in the regular season but was swept by the eventual Japan Series champion Chiba Lotte Marines in the first stage of the playoffs last year. Nippon Ham missed a postseason berth, finishing fourth.