Fighters, Giants ready for championship showdown


Staff Writer

For the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and Yomiuri Giants, it was business as usual on the eve of the 2012 Japan Series.

Both teams practiced for about two hours apiece at Tokyo Dome in anticipation of the title series, which begins Saturday at the Giants’ home park with a scheduled 6:10 p.m. start time.

“It’s a very unique atmosphere,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said of the Japan Series. “Even though we might be feeling nervous going into tomorrow’s game, we are up to the challenge.”

Hara will be managing in his fourth Japan Series having won the title in 2002 and 2009. His Giants lost to the Seibu Lions in 2008.

Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama took the reins in Sapporo this season and will be making his first appearance in the Japanese version of the Fall Classic.

“It’s very special to have made it to the Japan Series in my first year as manager,” Kuriyama said.

The managers decided against announcing starting pitchers prior to games during a meeting Friday afternoon. They also discussed potentially using a designated hitter during the games at Tokyo Dome.

The Central League doesn’t use a designated hitter during intraleague play or interleague games in CL parks. The rules could have been amended if both Hara and Kuriyama had agreed to the change.

The managers ultimately decided against it, meaning pitchers will hit at Tokyo Dome and a designated hitter will be used at Sapporo Dome.

While the starters won’t be announced, it’s likely Giants left-hander Tetsuya Utsumi (15-6, 1.98) will face Fighters lefty Mitsuo Yoshikawa (14-5, 1.71) in Game 1.

“The starting pitchers tomorrow will of course be the ace pitcher for both teams,” Hara said.

The teams split their four meetings during interleague play this year, each winning once in the other’s home stadium. Nippon Ham outscored Yomiuri 15-13 in those games.

“I consider them to be different from the team we met during interleague,” Hara said. “The same is true for us. Both teams have been evolving in the same way during the pennant race and Climax Series. Of course, I consider them to be a formidable opponent.”

Kuriyama also acknowledged that the stakes are higher than they were during the summer

“Playing the Giants during the interleague season is much different than the postseason,” Kuriyama said. “They showed what a strong team they are by coming back to win the Climax Series after falling behind three games to one (against the Chunichi Dragons).”

Fighters slugger Sho Nakata was 7-for-16 (.438) in those four meetings and enters the Japan Series after having hit .444 with an RBI during Nippon Ham’s three-game sweep of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks during the final stage of the CL Climax Series.

“He’s got power, and he obviously hit a lot of home runs,” said Yomiuri’s D.J. Houlton, the pitcher who gave up the homer to Nakata during interleague play. “I have to be more careful with him in every at-bat.”

The Giants and Fighters are meeting in the Japan Series for the third time. The Giants won both of their previous meetings, including a 4-2 series victory in 2009. Hara said the Kyojin have changed a lot since that triumph three seasons ago.

“I believe our players are younger and have more speed,” the Giants manager said. “In that sense, our team has really changed.”

Both teams enter the series riding three-game winning streaks.

Nippon Ham swept the Hawks in three games during the final stage of the PL Climax Series, while the Giants, pushed to the brink of elimination, won the final three contests of their series against the Dragons. The Fighters finished their series Oct. 19, while the Giants did not end the Climax Series until Oct. 22.

“Even though the Hawks had a difficult season, I did not expect we would beat them three straight,” Kuriyama said. “I thought we would play at least four games and we were prepared to play all six. I was worried about my pitchers. The Giants did play all six games and had to go through their pitching staff.”

The Kyojin looking to wrap up the season with the title, creating the perfect ending to a year during which they finished with the best record in Japan, won the CL by 10 1/2 games and became the first CL team to win the interleague title.

“Of course starting pitching is the key,” Hara said. “But having said that, we had all of our players cover for each other. Even in the Climax Series, there were players who don’t normally play a central role who stepped up, and we were able to win games using them.”

The Fighters are probably slight underdogs, but have arrived in Tokyo ready to put on a show.

“We want to show the fans the kind of interesting and exciting baseball we have played all year and prove that we belong here and can hold our own against the Giants,” Kuriyama said.