SENDAI – Masahiro Tanaka blew out the candles on his birthday cake in one big breath.
If he can muster up the strength to blow the Yomiuri Giants away one more time, the new 25-year-old will give himself and the Tohoku region a party that won’t soon be forgotten.
Tanaka, the recently crowned 2013 Sawamura Award winner who hasn’t lost a decision since August of 2012, will make his final start of the year on Saturday in Game 6 of the Japan Series at Kleenex Stadium with the franchise’s first-ever title just a win away.
“Ma-Kun” went the distance and struck out 12 in the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ 2-1 win over Yomiuri in Game 2, but this start comes with a little bit more on the line.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Tanaka said. “The only difference is that we could clinch the Japan Series title. Since I already pitched, I don’t think I’ll feel any more nervousness than last time.”
Tanaka watched from Sendai as his teammates beat the Giants in a thrilling Game 5 finish at Tokyo Dome on Thursday to take a 3-2 lead in the series. That win gives Rakuten two chances, both at home, to finish off the defending Japan Series champions.
“Still got a lot of work to do,” Eagles third baseman Casey McGehee said. “Sometimes that last game, last inning, sometimes those are the toughest ones to get.”
Each team worked out at Kleenex Stadium on Friday — the Eagles briefly, and the Giants going through their full paces.
The Raktuen players were smiling, loose, and seemingly unencumbered by the enormity of the opportunity that awaits Saturday night.
A Rakuten victory would be another welcome sign of joy to a region that has rallied around the team in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in 2011, the effects of which are still being felt to this day.
McGehee said the feeling from the fans goes deeper than the usual rah-rah fervor, that it felt deeper and more emotional.
“I hope that whatever role we have played, even if it doesn’t go our way these next two games, I hope this has been a bright spot for this region,” he said.
The storybook ending for Rakuten fans would be to finish with Tanaka on mound closing out his own win in the ninth.
“Well, that depends on the opponents,” Tanaka said. “It depends on how the game plays out, so I don’t know about that.”
The Giants figure to face an uphill climb to stay alive against a pitcher who didn’t lose a game all year, and finished the season with a 1.27 ERA in 183 innings.
“We’re going to do our best,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said.
They’ll send right-hander Tomoyuki Sugano to the mound, hoping the rookie, who won 13 games this season, can keep the Eagles cooped long enough for the Kyojin batters to find the holes in Tanaka’s armour.
“I’m going to do everything I can to help the team,” Sugano said. “Of course, I feel a little pressure, but I will try to use that to my advantage.”
More than anything, the Giants need to regain their vigor at the plate.
Hisayoshi Chono has a .300 average through the first five games of the series, but he’s the only Yomiuri regular hitting above .250. All-Stars Shinnosuke Abe and Hayato Sakamoto have combined to produce just three hits, while Jose Lopez is still in search of his first base knock of the series.
Lopez, however, exuded confidence as he prepared to step into the batting cage during practice on Friday.
“Seven,” he said simply. “Game 7.”
The Kyojin’s inefficiency has mostly prevented them from taking advantage of the mistakes the Eagles have made at various points during the series.
Offense is one of the main reasons the Giants are here, and the team is a threat to break out of its collective slump at any time.
With the title almost in their grasp, the Eagles remained upbeat, unfazed, and focused on seeing things through to the end, win or lose, on their terms.
“While we know they’ve got a good team, we’re completely confident in ourselves,” McGehee said. “We might not do it as flashy and as pretty as some other teams, but I think we’ve got a good team top to bottom. We’ve got a lot of scrap in us.
“We got a lot of dog in us.”