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Eagles upbeat before Japan Series opener against Giants

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Rain kept the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles indoors on Friday, but hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm ahead of their first Japan Series appearance, which comes against the storied Yomiuri Giants.

“I’m excited to play against the Giants (in the Japan Series),” Eagles catcher Motohiro Shima said after the team’s practice on a rainy afternoon in Sendai. “I’ve watched them on TV and always wanted to play on the same stage. At the same time, it’s hard to believe we’re really here. Of course, we want to win.”

He’ll have to wait if rain from the typhoon headed for Japan postpones the first game of the series, scheduled for Saturday night at Kleenex Stadium. The contest is currently expected to proceed as planned.

“There’s nothing we can do about the weather,” Eagles ace Masahiro Tanaka said. “We’re just going to have to see how it plays out.”

Whenever the series kicks off, it will be rookie Takahiro Norimoto toeing the rubber for Rakuten, not Tanaka, the undefeated Sawamura Award favorite.

In a rare occurrence, Eagles manager Senichi Hoshino and Giants skipper Tatsunori Hara have agreed to announce their starters beforehand, and Hoshino will send Norimoto to the mound against Yomiuri lefty Tetsuya Utsumi in Game 1.

Norimoto had a solid rookie season for Rakuten, finishing 15-8 with a 3.34 ERA and 134 strikeouts in 170 innings. Utsumi, the 2012 Japan Series MVP, was 13-6 with a 3.31 ERA and struck out 107 in 160 1/3 innings for Yomiuri.

Utsumi sounded a little surprised he wouldn’t be facing Tanaka, but quickly shrugged it off.

“It really doesn’t matter who I’m facing to be honest,” Utsumi said. “I still have to perform against the batters.”

Despite not getting the call in Game 1, all eyes will be on Tanaka when his turn comes around.

The right-hander is coming off one of the best regular seasons in history, finishing 24-0 with a save, 183 strikeouts and a 1.27 ERA in 212 innings. He threw a complete game against the Chiba Lotte Marines to win Game 1 of the Pacific League Climax Series Final Stage and recorded a save in the series finale.

Tanaka went about his business as usual Friday, throwing a 34-pitch bullpen session.

“I just did what I normally do,” he said.

The Eagles say they feel confident no matter who they have on the mound.

“Obviously Tanaka, that’s a nice weapon to have,” said third baseman Casey McGehee. “But you’ve got the best rookie in the league (Norimoto) on the staff, and then we’ve got other guys. (Manabu) Mima pitched the way everyone knew he was capable of in the second stage (of the PL Climax Series). I think that’s the good thing. We’ve got a lot of guys, maybe not with the name or the numbers that Tanaka has, but we feel just as confident in whoever’s out there.”

The Eagles expect to be able to feed off the emotions of what they hope will be an electric atmosphere at Kleenex Stadium.

“We get to start in Sendai just like in the Climax Series,” Tanaka said. “Being able to start at home is really special.”

Rakuten hopes to give the fans a lot to cheer about in Game 1.

“We want to be aggressive and win so that we can give some joy to the people in Tohoku,” infielder Ginji Akaminai said.

The region has rallied around the Eagles’ run to the Japan Series, especially in light of the struggles many have faced after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami that struck in 2011.

“At the end of the day, it’s a baseball game, and hopefully it’s a sign of good things to come for the area,” McGehee said. “We’re here to entertain them (people from the affected areas) and hopefully make them feel good for a couple of hours.

“I feel like it’s a very small part that we play in the rebuilding of the area and people’s mindsets. I know there’s still a lot of people going through tough times. Hopefully this is just kind of the turning point to maybe the light at the end of the tunnel.”

The Eagles are in the Japan Series for the first time after winning the Pacific League pennant, another first, and defeating the Marines in the Climax Series.

It’s also the first trip to the title series for Andruw Jones, Rakuten’s celebrated offseason acquisition. Jones, a five-time MLB All-Star, appeared in two World Series with the Atlanta Braves (against the New York Yankees in both 1996 and ’99) but lost in both trips to the Fall Classic.

“It’s good to be a part of a final anytime you play,” Jones said. “We’ve come a long way and we’ve fought hard. It was a great series against Chiba Lotte. Now we’re just looking forward to this series against the Giants and hopefully we can continue to play the same baseball we played against Lotte.”

They’ll need to do that, and maybe then some, against the defending Japan Series champions. In stark contrast to the Eagles, the Giants are in the Japan Series for the 34th time and looking for title No. 23. The two teams split their four interleague meetings this year.

“They are a legendary team,” Akaminai said. “They’re a strong team.”

The Eagles’ pitchers held their own against Lotte’s Tadahito Iguchi in the Climax Series, but the Giants bring more weapons to the table than the third-place Marines did.

“They’ve got so many great hitters,” Shima said. “All of them are key guys. Every one of them can hit homers, they can run, and their batting is consistent.”

Shinnosuke Abe hit .296 with 32 home runs during the regular season and is perhaps the main threat in the Yomiuri lineup, though Shuichi Murata is coming off a strong second half, and hit .316 with 25 home runs for the Kyojin this season. Seven different Giants finished with at least 10 home runs this year. The Giants pose a threat anywhere they play, but are especially lethal at home in Tokyo Dome.

“You can’t keep running from them because they play in a hitter’s park,” Shima said, referring to the Big Egg where Games 3,4 and 5 will be held. “You can hit home runs to any part of the field there. Anyway, it’ll be important for us to win in Sendai first of all.”