SAPPORO – Brian Wolfe essentially had the season riding on his shoulders in the first Japan Series game of his career.
Wolfe’s postseason career to that point had consisted of one-failed trip to the Midwest League (Single-A) playoffs in 2001, where his Quad City River Bandits (Minnesota Twins) fell to the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Seattle Mariners) in the first round. Wolfe was 13-8 with a 2.81 ERA and 128 strikeouts for the River Bandits that season.
Eleven years later, he was handed the ball in Game 3 of the Japan Series, with his Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters on the precipice of a 3-0 deficit in the series against the Yomiuri Giants.
Wolfe delivered and picked up the win in his first Japan Series start, throwing five innings of two-run ball and striking out three in Nippon Ham’s 7-3 victory.
“Before the game there were some nerves,” Wolfe said prior to Game 4 at Sapporo Dome. “Big game, but after we got a couple of runs early, it was easy to calm down.”
The win kept the series alive, and means the Sacramento, California, native may be called on again, possibly with the title hanging in the balance.
“I’ll probably take today off for sure,” Wolfe said. “After that, everyone is available at any time, depending on how the series goes. Whatever the manager tells me to do, I’ll be ready to do.”
Unlike Mitsuo Yoshikawa and Masaru Takeda, the losing pitchers in Games 1 and 2 respectively, Wolfe made his start in the friendly confines of Sapporo Dome, the Fighters’ spacious home park, far from the cramped surroundings of hitter-friendly Tokyo Dome.
His start also came against fellow Fullerton, California, native and his former Servite High School (Anaheim, California) teammate D.J. Houlton.
“It was pretty cool going into it knowing that you came from the same background and coming all the way over here now and playing,” Wolfe said.
“I think it’ll sink in more at the end of the season. That two high school teammates made it to the Series and pitched against each other.”
Wolfe came out on top in what was likely the first matchup of opposing foreign pitchers from the same hometown and high school in Japan Series history.
“It’s pretty cool,” Wolfe said. “Just pitching alone in this series is a big deal, that the manager has the confidence to let you pitch in these games. Something like that, yeah it’s quirky, but at the end of the day, it’s still something.”
Wolfe was 10-9 with a 2.66 ERA for the Fighters during the regular season, finishing with double-digit victories for the second straight season. He was also the winning pitcher in the team’s Climax Series-clinching victory over the defending Japan Series champion Fukuoka Softbank Hawks Oct. 19.
That win put the Fighters in the Japan Series, a level some doubted they could reach without former ace Yu Darvish, who was posted and signed a contract with the Texas Rangers over the offseason.
“It’s big,” Wolfe admitted. “I think (Masato) Yoshii-coach is a big part of it. Coming into camp, we knew we lost Darvish. Yoshikawa stepped up in a big way, and everybody else has kind of filled in where they needed to, and our bullpen has been really good. That’s a big key.”
Wolfe said having Yoshii, who spent five years in the majors with the New York Mets, Colorado Rockies and Montreal Expos, as his pitching coach has helped him.
“It definitely does, because there’s a lot of communication, and we don’t need an interpreter,” Wolfe said. “We can talk to each other, we can understand what’s going on. There’s a high level of confidence when he comes out and tells you something, and you’re not hearing it from a third party. That’s a big thing.”
Wolfe has come a long way since pitching alongside Houlton at Servite High. He was drafted out of high school by the Minnesota Twins in 1999 and made his MLB debut May 30, 2007, for the Toronto Blue Jays.
The journey this year has brought him closer to postseason success than ever before, something that doesn’t seem lost on the Fighters pitcher.
“It’s a good feeling,” Wolfe said. “You’re just trying to do whatever the team asks you to do. Hopefully at the end of the day we can win this thing.”