In the fifth game of the Japan Series, Senichi Hoshino went for the jugular.
Even already secure in the knowledge that at the very worst he’d be relying on two of this year’s top pitchers to win two games at home in order claim the title, the fiery Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles manager pressed the issue with his team ahead 2-0 in the sixth, sending his second-best starter, Takahiro Norimoto, to the mound in relief to get a four-inning save on Thursday night.
When Norimoto didn’t get the job done, allowing the defending Japan Series champion Yomiuri Giants to score in the seventh and ultimately tie the game in the bottom of the ninth, Hoshino stuck by his young hurler.
The gambit paid off in the 10th, when Ginji Akaminai and Andruw Jones drove in a pair of runs in the top half, and Norimoto retired the side in the bottom.
Hoshino may have been criticized had he used Noritmoto and lost, but sometimes a good risk doesn’t always work out, and at least Hoshino tried to seize the moment and the momentum.
That’s a moot point anyway, because the roll of the dice worked, and instead of needing to win twice, the Eagles return to Sendai with a 3-2 lead in the series, and undefeated Masahiro Tanaka, who struck out 12 in a complete-game victory in Game 2, waiting for his number to be called.
“There were going to be completely different situations depending on whether we won or lost,” Norimoto, who gave up two runs in five innings of relief and got the win, said after Game 5.
“Now I believe Tanaka-san will hold them off. As for me, I’m done. I want to have some rest.”
From the moment reliever Takashi Saito recorded the final out of a surprising 5-1 win in Game 3, Hoshino held most of the cards, knowing no matter what happened in Tokyo, he still had Norimoto and NPB’s ace of aces, Tanaka, in his back pocket.
Perhaps holding that trump card kept Hoshino’s finger off the trigger in Game 4, when the Eagles staked out to a 4-1 lead through three innings, only for a leaky bullpen to allow the game to slip away with Norimoto on the bench.
Hoshino wore a wistful smile as he wound his way through the hallways of Tokyo Dome’s underbelly that night, saying, “It was all my fault. That’s all.”
Fortune smiled on the Eagles again Thursday, when young starter Wataru Karashima threw up five one-hit innings, helping to maintain a 2-0 lead until the sixth inning.
This time, Hoshino took his chance, telling Norimoto, a 15-game winner during the regular season who would’ve likely started either Game 6 or 7, to go out and nail down the win.
“I didn’t hesitate at all,” Hoshino said of the switch afterward. “I had told him to be ready to go. So he was ready.”
Hoshino laughed at the notion that his bullpen was thin, but said wanted to put his faith in the rookie pitcher.
“We do have others,” he said laughing. “But I told (Norimoto) to go as long as he could and shoulder the responsibility. That’s something our young guys lack. You can stumble as long as you’re trying to move forward.”
The manager had the golden touch all night.
Early on he played Andruw Jones in center field and inserted Toshiya Nakashima into the lineup in left, despite 10-time MLB Gold Glove-winner Jones having not fielded center since Sept. 30, 2010, while with the Chicago White Sox.
“What risk? You’re rude,” Hoshino feigned jokingly when asked about Jones playing center.
Jones, who was Rakuten’s designated hitter this year and played first during interleague play, acquitted himself well before giving way to Ryo Hijirisawa and moving to left in the fourth.
“It wasn’t as smooth as I wanted it to be,” Jones said. “But we had to make some moves. They asked me, and I told them I’m fine. So it was good.”
“I felt kind of tired after all the outfield plays, because I hadn’t played outfield in a long time,” he added later. “So I was just trying to make that adjustment. But instinct always takes over when you go to a familiar place. So it was not that big of a deal to go out there and play center field.”
Hijirisawa went on to make a nice defensive play late in the game, and Jones was still in the lineup during the 10th, when he drove in an insurance run with an infield single.
Having the runners in motion with Akaminai at the plate earlier in the 10th was something else that could’ve gone wrong for Hoshino and Rakuten. Like everything else in Game 5, it mostly worked out in the end.
“We took the risk,” Hoshino said. “We knew that Ginji rarely swings and misses. And it worked.
“We’ve tried to push ourselves against the Giants, the champions, and we’ve had good games. It’s valuable experience for our guys.”