It’s been 22 years since the Hiroshima Carp have played this deep into a season. A long enough period that most of the team is experiencing postseason baseball for the very first time.
While a new generation of red-helmeted stars has led the long-suffering franchise within a few wins of a long-awaited return to the Japan Series, they’ll have to find a way past the always-powerful defending champion Yomiuri Giants in order to complete the revival.
The Carp got ready to take the first step on Tuesday, practicing for about two hours inside Tokyo Dome, safely tucked away from the wind and the rain, in preparation for their maiden voyage into the Central League Climax Series Final Stage, which begins Wednesday.
“I thought I’d be a little nervous at first, but I haven’t really changed anything I’d been doing during the season and I’ve been able to keep a similar feeling,” Hiroshima’s Yoshihiro Maru said.
The Carp (69-72-3) earned their first A-Class finish in 16 years this season. They celebrated their return to the playoffs with a pair of road wins against the Hanshin Tigers, sweeping through the first stage of the Climax Series to earn a date with the Kyojin.
“I think everybody feels real good,” Carp slugger Brad Eldred said. “Obviously (Hanshin) was a tough team to face, and we played pretty well, hit the ball well. So it’s obviously good for everybody’s confidence coming into this series.”
The Carp hovered around fourth place in the CL before a strong finish helped them fend off the Chunichi Dragons to finish third and qualify for the playoffs.
“We’ve been taking it a day at a time,” infielder Kila Ka’aihue said. “Our lineup has been pretty much the same every day. Our pitchers have been steady. If we just do what we need to do, I think we’ll be fine.”
Playing in the postseason is new for the Carp, but it’s business as usual for the Giants, who are two-time defending CL champions and aiming for a second-straight Japan Series title.
Yomiuri finished with the best record in Japan (84-53-7) and in addition to hosting the entire final stage at the Big Egg, the Kyojin begin the six-game series with an automatic one-game advantage by virtue of winning the league title.
Hiroshima, however, isn’t shrinking from the challenge.
“It’s where we want to be playing right now,” pitcher Bryan Bullington said. “We’ve played well the second half, especially in September down the stretch, and played a good series last weekend.
“We’re playing good baseball. Obviously the deck is kind of stacked against us. We gotta win four out of six on the road. It’s not going to be easy by any stretch, but we’re going to go out and play hard and see what happens.”
Hiroshima’s path to the Japan Series, which would be the franchise’s first trip to the Japanese Fall Classic since 1991, figures to be an uphill climb. The Giants were 14-8-2 overall to win the season series between the teams, though the Carp won five of their last seven meetings.
“We’ve been playing them pretty tough during the last part of this year,” Eldred said. “Hopefully that will continue to be the case and we’re able to continue to play them tough. I hope we come out of it with a lot of wins.”
The Giants will likely pitch Tetsuya Utsumi (13-6) in Game 1, with Hiroshima probably countering with Kan Otake (10-10). Teams do not announce starting pitchers during the CL Climax Series.
Both offenses figure to have their hands full against talented pitching staffs.
The Carp have ace Kenta Maeda (15-7), who pitched in the first stage, laying in wait later in the series, while Yusuke Nomura (12-6) and Bullington (11-9) won’t be far behind.
The Giants, however, have a pair of 13-game winners in Utsumi and Tomoyuki Sugano, as well as former Sawamura Award winner Toshiya Sugiuchi (11-6) to call upon.
“They’ve got good pitchers, both left and right-handed, who can get ahead in the count and make it difficult on hitters,” Maru said. “So I want to avoid falling behind.”
The Giants also have Japan’s top relief trio, Tetsuya Yamaguchi, Scott Mathieson and Kentaro Nishimura, for late-game situations.
“These are the types of games I want to pitch in,” Mathieson said. “That the whole reason I came here, to pitch in meaningful games.”
The Yomiuri pitchers would usually expect to dominate a toothless Hiroshima lineup. Except these aren’t the same old Carp.
Maru played better as the season wound down, Eldred returned from a broken finger better than ever late in the season, and Ka’aihue, who joined the team in July, gave Hiroshima another power bat.
So the Kyojin could have their hands full. Ka’aihue, for one, is looking forward to the challenge.
“They’re probably the most consistent team that comes at me,” he said. “They’ve got such a good team, a good lineup, and good players, that they’re not worried about one guy on another team beating them. They actually play baseball similar to what I’ve played in the States. In that aspect, they challenge me. They’re not going to walk me or pitch around me to get to somebody. They actually want to compete. I appreciate that because it’s competition. It’s competition at its finest.”
Hawks won’t bring back quartet
The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks announced Tuesday they have parted ways with pitchers Brian Falkenborg, Vicente Padilla, Yang Yao-hsun and outfielder Wily Mo Pena.
In his fifth year in Japan, Falkenborg went 0-4 with a 2.04 ERA and 10 saves in 41 appearances. Padilla was 3-6 with a 3.84 ERA in 16 games in his first season for the fourth-place Hawks.
Pena hit just .233 with one home run and 16 RBIs in his second season with Softbank. Yang did not play this season.