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Fighters skipper Kuriyama maintains light mood after opening setback


Staff Writer

Despite a lopsided 8-1 loss to the Yomiuri Giants in Game 1 of the Japan Series, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama came out in front of the media throng in a cheerful mode before Sunday’s Game 2 at Tokyo Dome.

And the first word that came out of his mouth was sort of a joke. Referring to most of the reporters wearing dark suits, which is almost ritual for them at big games, the 51-year-old Kuriyama teasingly said, “You guys look frightening.”

Kuriyama said that the loss in the first game hurt, but still expects his players to perform the way they’ve done all year — freely and boldly.

“You know, whether we win or lose, we can still go back to Sapporo,” the rookie skipper said. “Even if we enter the third game down 0-2, we can make it down 1-2 if we win it. So I’ve told our players to not feel any pressure and play like the Fighters.”

After the Game 1 defeat, Kuriyama seemed so disappointed. But he was back to his usual, loquacious manner the next day. In fact, he actually spilled the beans, revealing the team’s starting pitcher for the day.

Both managers had agreed not to announce starting pitchers in advance for the Japan Series.

“We’re going to have Masaru (Takeda). … Oh not him, I mean, I don’t have to keep it secret anymore, do I?” Kuriyama said.

Then he joked again by saying, “Well, you never know. It could be Masaru Nakamura (who’s also expected to start around Games 4 or 5).”

Ace in the hole: In Game 1, Giants starter Tetsuya Utsumi had a magnificent performance, silencing the Fighters for seven innings.

But after the game on Saturday, he kept his calm with not much of a smile when he came back in the dugout to speak to the media.

The southpaw, the Central League’s winningest pitcher in the last two years, said that he felt he had finally lived up to the expectations of the team and manager Tatsunori Hara.

Utsumi said that he was sent to the mound in both openers of the regular season and Climax Series final stage against the Chunichi Dragons but failed to deliver Ws for the league’s perennial powerhouse.

“I’ve always been given the role to start in those first games and ended up dropping them,” Utsumi said. “And that’s put the team in bad situations. So I definitely wanted to finally lead the team to a win in this series.

“I pitched as if it’d be my last opportunity (to start in a first game of a series) today.”

Hara, however, revealed he’s never lost faith in the 30-year-old hurler.

Asked if the skipper had any options to start someone else, Hara quickly responded, “No. I didn’t think about it for a second.”

Utsumi is back to being in peak form for the most significant games of the year. He said that he regained his ideal pitching mechanics during the Climax Series final stage.

He added that he had a little fatigue from the Climax Series as he pitched on three day’s rest in his second start, but it didn’t really affect him Saturday because he’s got the right form.

Doesn’t matter where they are: The Fighters were obviously the visitors for the first two games at Tokyo Dome, but remember, this club played in this ballpark before it moved up to Hokkaido in 2004.

Though they were completely outnumbered by the Giants fans, some of the Fighters fans were die-hard supporters who have rooted for the Pacific League team since before its relocation.

Found in a light blue based jersey and a dark blue cap with a “nh” logo that the team wore in the early 1980s was a 61-year-old Tokyo native named Wataru Tanaka. He said that he was a proud Fighter fan for more than four decades.

Tanaka said that he was shocked when the club left Tokyo, but never thought about switching the team he roots root for.

“I don’t know, there weren’t many years this team was strong when it was here,” said Tanaka, who had a seat in the right-field bleachers. “But for some reason I’ve always loved this team.

“So when the team moved to Hokkaido, I felt like I’ve got a big hole in my heart. But after all I kept rooting for them and it’s great they’ve become a stronger team now.”

Tanaka said he tries to come to as many Fighters games as possible when the team plays at Tokyo Dome, where the team still has several games every year, and couldn’t be happier to see it play here in the Japan Series.

“We’ve lost (against the Giants) in the last two times (1981 and 2009),” he said, referring to the Japanese Fall Classic. “So hopefully, it’ll be our turn to win in the end.”