FUKUOKA – Shota Takeda might’ve opened the Japan Series with a three-hit shutout had the game been played in 2014. It wasn’t, so instead of a shutout, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks pitcher gave up a two-out two-run home run to Tokyo Yakult Swallows slugger Kazuhiro Hatakeyama in the ninth inning of a 4-2 victory in Game 1 on Saturday night.
Takeda fell victim to a talented power hitter in that instance, but the fact the Hawks moved in the walls at Yafuoku Dome over the winter certainly didn’t help him out in Game 1. Last year, Hatekeyama’s strike was a double at worst. This year, it was a home run.
The Hawks, in a bid to boost home runs, moved in the fences in left and right center by around six meters this past winter. The team also shortened the height of the main wall. It’s worked, as the Hawks now have a stadium more conducive to the long ball.
“It feels like even with a more compact swing you can hit a home run,” Nobuhiro Matsuda told The Japan Times before Game 2 on Sunday. “So we try to do that.”
One of the questions heading into this year’s Japan Series, was what effect, if any, Yafuoku Dome’s new cozy dimensions would have on the series. Hatakeyama’s hit didn’t alter the outcome of the opener, but if the series comes back for a sixth or seventh game, the short porch could come into play. While the Hawks have reaped the benefits all year, the Swallows also get to hit at the dome during this series.
“I think making it a little bit smaller is a big advantage for the power hitters,” Yakult’s Wladimir Balentien said during practice on Friday.
Matsuda, who hit a homer in Game 1 that would’ve cleared the walls last season, has been one of the benefactors. He hit a career-high 35 home runs this year, 10 more than his previous best of 25, achieved during the 2011 season. Twenty-three of Matsuda’s long balls this season came at Yafuoku Dome. A Sports Navi article by Kotaro Tajiri in September, found that Matsuda hit 12 of his homers into the new home run area.
“I’ve really been able to keep everything compact this year,” Matsuda said. “Maybe its because the terrace is there, but it’s also the result of the ability to stay back and keep everything simple.”
The Hawks’ 95 home runs were the fourth-most in the PL and eighth-most in NPB in 2014. They led NPB this season with 141. According to data website Pro Yakyu Nuldata Okiba (Pro Baseball Null Data Storage), the Hawks hit 77 home runs at Yafuoku Dome this year compared to just 34 in 2014.
The flip side has been the Softbank pitchers have given up almost twice as many long balls, allowing 67 at home compared to 36 last season (according to Null Data). Hatakeyama took advantage in Game 1, and the other Swallows batters will hope to get in on the fun if the series returns for a Game 6 or 7.
The Hawks, however, are already well-versed on what they need to do on the mound, after experiencing the ups and downs of the new home run area all season.
“It doesn’t bother me,” said Softbank closer Dennis Sarfate. “They can bring it in another 10 feet for all I care. All it does is it makes you aware you gotta make good pitches. I’ve allowed four home run this year, two of them have been into the porch. To me, it’s not a big deal. If the guy hits it, he’s gonna hit it out. You just gotta make good pitches, keep the ball down.
“This field played really big before. I just think it adds a new element. It makes us a lot better, I’ll tell you that much. We’ve hit so many home runs into that thing. So I think it’s an advantage for us.”