Fighters face up to task


SAPPORO — The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters mostly took the day off on Friday but there’s no hiding from the situation they find themselves in as the Japan Series returns to Hokkaido.

The Fighters lost a gut-wrenching 3-2 contest to the Yomiuri Giants in Game 5 of the Japan Series. Now they find themselves on a brink of elimination against a squad riding high after an improbable victory.

“We have to accept it,” Fighters pitcher Yu Darvish said of the situation.

Darvish, however, denied that the Giants had the momentum in the series.

“There’s a one day layoff, so I don’t think so,” Darvish said.

Twice the Fighters had reason to believe that they had put themselves into the driver’s seat for the 2009 title on Thursday night at Tokyo Dome.

Nippon Ham starter Shugo Fujii did his best Darvish impersonation for seven shutout innings, preserving a 1-0 lead against Japan’s most fearsome lineup in one of the most hitter-friendly park in the country.

After the Giants fought back to tie the score once Fujii was out of the game, Shinji Takahashi hit a clutch ninth-inning home run that left the Fighters with one hand wrapped around the Japan Series title.

Or so it seemed.

Until a pair of clutch ninth-inning homers by Yoshiyuki Kamei and Shinnosuke Abe, whose solo drive was the game-winner, turned the series on its head.

“That’s the scary thing about baseball,” Fighters manager Masataka Nashida said afterward. “These things happen.”

The Fighters are a proud team, however, and not the types to just go quietly into the cold Hokkaido night while the Giants celebrate in their home stadium.

“These guys, they don’t have an easy out,” Giants slugger Alex Ramirez said earlier in the series. “It’s not like we have an easy out either, but all these guys seem like they know what they’re doing. They’ve really got a great team.”

Takahashi is batting .381 with a pair of homers in the series and slugger Terrmel Sledge has played better at home than on the road during the postseason.

Eiichi Koyano is also swinging the bat well, batting .400 with a homer and five RBIs.

“I think the difference is their ability to hit in the clutch,” Giants closer Marc Kroon said. “They’ve been doing it all year. Their batting average with runners in scoring position is just amazing.”

On the mound, the Fighters find themselves in a bit of a pickle.

Starting Darvish in Game 6 may give them the best chance to win, but leaves the star hurler unavailable for Game 7. Sit him on Saturday, however, and there may not be a seventh game to worry about.

Early reports have Masaru Takeda taking the hill to attempt to tie the series with Darvish preparing for a shot at playing the hero on Sunday.

No matter who’s on the hill, he can expect an outpouring of love from the Nippon Ham faithful. The Fighters’ fans can make Sapporo Dome shake with their support and the Fighters players feed off that energy.

“They’re definitely great fans up there,” Kroon said. “They love their Fighters. But it’s just like any other place you go. Koshien’s loud. Chiba’s loud. You just go out there and you turn it off. You realize you have one thing to do, go out there and pitch, hit, run, catch and block it out the best you can.

“It’s hard to block it out, but you have to figure out a way the best you can.”