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Led by first-year managers, Hawks, Swallows chasing Japan Series title

by

Staff Writer

The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and Tokyo Yakult Swallows have already proven themselves to be the top teams in the Pacific and Central Leagues.

The next week will decide which club can call itself the best of the best in 2015.

The champions of NPB’s two leagues took turns working out at Yafuoku Dome on Friday afternoon as they put the finishing touches on their preparation for this year’s Japan Series, which begins on Saturday. Game 1 is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m., with Rugby World Cup star Ayumu Goromaru scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Both teams worked out for over two hours on Friday, going through all the motions.

Swallows manager Mitsuru Manaka acknowledged the stage and the pressure that comes with it, but said his Swallows will stick to their normal routine.

“We don’t have any special plans,” Manaka said. “We’ll play as usual.”

That includes sticking to not announcing the next day’s starting pitcher.

While both leagues announce probable starters during the regular season, only the PL took the system into the Climax Series.

When the two first-year skippers, Manaka and the Hawks’ Kimiyasu Kudo, met for the manager’s meeting on Friday, Kudo was the first to broach the subject.

“The Pacific League announces the next day’s pitchers and I’d like to bring that system here,” Kudo said.

Manaka, demurred, saying, “I wouldn’t like to talk about who our planned pitchers are.”

Because they didn’t agree, the starters for each game won’t be officially revealed until the lineups are released.

Kudo, as usual, seemed to be in high spirits on the practice day.

The former star pitcher won the Japan Series 11 times in 14 tries as a player. He felt like he had a good chance at adding another ring, this time as a manager, from the moment he accepted the job and he’s only four victories away from turning that into a reality.

“I told our players on the first day of spring camp that we’d accomplish the V2 (back-to-back championships), that we’d accomplish the big objective,” Kudo said. “So I’d like to express my appreciation to the players for doing their best up until this point. We’d definitely like to win the Japan Series to accomplish the V2.”

The Hawks had the best record in Japan (90-49-4) during the regular season but that won’t matter, least of all to the Swallows, once the first pitch is thrown on Saturday.

“Once you get on the field, you’ve got to win,” Kudo said. “It will depend on how strong of a mindset you have — no matter the situation you’re in or how critical the situation is. We aren’t going to forget this mindset and we’ll do our best and play as one.”

The Hawks’ lineup poses a considerable challenge for the Yakult pitchers. Stars like Yuki Yanagita, Nobuhiro Matsuda, Lee Dae-ho and the ever-reliable Seiichi Uchikawa all know how to make life tough for the opposition.

Then again, the Swallows are no slouches themselves in that department.

“They have home run threats and they can string together hits,” Kudo said.

The Swallows have a potent trio at 2-3-4 in the lineup with CL batting champion Shingo Kawabata, home run and stolen base champion Tetsuto Yamada and RBI leader Kazuhiro Hatakeyama waiting to do damage. If Yuhei Takai and Wladimir Balentien also get going, the Swallows could put up runs in a hurry — even against a Hawks staff that led Japan with a 3.16 team ERA.

“They have great pitching,” Balentien said. “We have great hitting. I think it will be fun. If we hit like we’re used to hitting, I think it will be a fun series.”

When it was pointed out that it wouldn’t be a lot of fun for the pitchers, Balentien smiled and said, “I hope not for them.”