Knowing how big an achievement it is for the club to still be playing this time of year, ace hurler Kenta Maeda had a proverbial huge monkey on his back while on the mound at Koshien Stadium last Saturday, when the Hiroshima Carp faced the Hanshin Tigers.
The Carp were playing their first postseason game in 22 years, since the red jersey club advanced to the 1991 Japan Series. And they never finished above third place in the last 15 years before this season.
So the pressure was almost inevitable. Especially for Maeda, the team’s indisputable best pitcher.
“Obviously, it was my first time (to pitch in the playoffs), I had to think of so many different things and felt so much pressure on my shoulders,” the 25-year-old said before Wednesday’s Game 1 of the Central League Climax Series Final Stage against the Yomiuri Giants.
But now, as Hiroshima passed its first hump by sweeping the Tigers in the first round of the playoffs, the stomachache time is over for the Carp. They are out there having fun.
“We don’t have to think too much any more, being more relaxed,” said Maeda, who’s expected to start in Thursday’s Game 2. “And I think we can play our own ball.”
And once they are back in their usual state of mind, we should know how dangerous they can be. Although the Carp ended the regular season with a losing record (69-72-3) to nab the third-seed spot, they turned hot after August, going 16-9-1, which was the best winning percentage in the league in that span.
Maeda called his team and its members a “fearless bunch.”
“We don’t have anything to lose,” said the right-hander, who was 15-7 with a league-best 2.10 ERA in 2013. “And I think it’s the Giants who should have the pressure on their shoulders. We have the momentum by coming from the third-place (spot).”
Maeda also recognized the importance of the Carp’s development of their competitive mind-set during pivotal games down the stretch this season. He said that his team is clearly playing with more confidence now.
“Before, when we got behind, we were in bad mood,” Maeda said. “But it’s not the case any more. Even when we are losing, we feel like we can bounce back.”
And as one of the leaders on the team, Maeda knows that he has to be on the hill with ultimate confidence, even against the Kyojin, who dominated the CL during the regular season and at their home, the hitter-friendly Tokyo Dome.
“I’ll just pitch as I usually do,” said Maeda, who was also given the ace role for the Japan national team in the World Baseball Classic in March. “It’s not going to help you if you are aware of this park being so small.
“I’ll just go all out and be on the mound as much as I can.”