Brian Falkenborg stepped out of the dugout shadows and into the sunlight at QVC Marine Stadium and said he didn’t expect it to be as warm as it was.
He didn’t expect to be the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks’ closer either, so unseasonably warm weather isn’t much of a surprise comparatively speaking.
A shoulder injury to Takahiro Mahara thrust Falkenborg into the ninth-inning role during the spring, and the Newport Beach, California, native is just rolling with the punches.
“Anytime you lose the closer, it’s a big deal,” Falkenborg said. “Having him miss some time last year and kind of having everybody have to move up one spot last year, I think helped us coming into this year.
“I got some experience closing and obviously (Masahiko) Morifuku got some experience setting up and also closing when I had an off day. Injuries happen. It’s just one of those things. Hopefully guys step up and you just have to play with who you’ve got.”
Falkenborg is more used to being the Hawks’ setup man. He led the Pacific League with 39 holds in 2010 and had 20 holds and 19 saves (with Mahara injured) last season, when he was the only foreign player to receive votes in the PL MVP race.
Now he’s tasked with regularly shutting the door on opponents in the ninth inning, a role which comes with it’s own set of responsibilities.
“There are some differences,” Falkenborg said. “It’s still about pitching a clean inning. For some reason, sometimes those three outs in the ninth inning seem to be the hardest three outs to get.”
The pressure of having the game in your hands as a closer can be intense, but it’s not without its advantages.
“As a closer when you’re winning by more than one run, your goal is just to win,” said Falkenborg. “As a setup man, if I come in up by three, my goal is to leave up by three and give the closer as much cushion as possible. Sometimes being a closer gives you the added advantage of maybe not worrying about that guy on second or third base and just concentrating on the hitter and finishing the game.”
Falkenborg has done well early in the season, leading the Pacific League with nine saves in 10 chances. He credits the experience of pitching in the Japan Series as one reason he and Morifuku have gotten off to a strong start out of the bullpen.
Falkenborg was named one of the outstanding players of last year’s Fall Classic after allowing no runs and striking out 10 in five appearances. Morifuku also pitched well, famously escaping a bases-loaded, none out, jam in the sixth inning of Game 4 in Nagoya Dome against the Chunichi Dragons.
“The important part of the Japan Series, and the fact that we take the most pride in, is that the team won and we put a banner up for Softbank,” he said. “Anytime you get experience in that type of pressure situation, it can do nothing by help you out.
“Being there causes you to relax a little more than the first time you do it. That’s true with anything in life. The first time you do something, you’re going to be more nervous than the second time. I remember when my first kid was born, I was much more nervous than when my second or third kid was born. When you get experience doing something, you become more comfortable with it.”
Mahara isn’t the only absence Softbank is dealing with in its quest for a third straight PL pennant and second consecutive Japan Series title.
After winning the Series for the first time since 2003, the Hawks watched pitchers Toshiya Sugiuchi, Tsuyoshi Wada D.J. Houlton, and shortstop Munenori Kawasaki leave the team. Wada and Kawasaki headed to the majors while Sugiuchi and Houlton joined the Yomiuri Giants.
“The atmosphere has been good,” Falkenborg said of the mood in the Fukuoka clubhouse. “That being said, anytime you lose you lose one of the vocal leaders of your team and your top three starters, that’s going to be a big difference. We obviously miss all of those guys, but it’s a great opportunity for guys that maybe wouldn’t have gotten an opportunity had everybody stuck around.
“This is a new season and we’ve got a lot of work to do to get back (to the Japan Series). We’re looking forward to the challenge, and hopefully we’ll be in the mix when that time comes.”