SAPPORO – Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama faced the type of decision that can decide championships during Game 4 of the Japan Series.
His 24-year-old starter, Masaru Nakamura, was dealing in his Series debut and had been one of the driving forces behind keeping the Fighters and Giants locked in a scoreless tie heading into the eighth inning.
Nippon Ham’s margin for error was slim. The Fighters trailed Yomiuri 2-1 in the series, and the prospect of losing and then needing to win three straight — two of which would be on the road at Tokyo Dome — was not an inviting one.
Nakamura wasn’t yet at 80 pitches and still looked sharp, but Kuriyama pulled him on Wednesday evening. The move could’ve easily backfired, but the Fighters’ relievers kept Yomiuri off the board long enough for Yuji Iiyama to deliver a game-winning double in the bottom of the 12th to give Nippon Ham a 1-0 win.
One day later, Kuriyama was sure he’d made the right move.
“Nakamura is a young pitcher and this is his first time (in the Japan Series),” Kuriyama said prior to Game 5. “He pitched at about the pace we used him at during the regular season, but this wasn’t a regular-season game.”
Kuriyama is a smart guy, but had no prior managerial experience to draw upon when it came to gauging how much his young pitcher had left in the tank during a game Nippon Ham couldn’t afford to lose.
He is in his first season managing the Fighters, taking the reins from Masataka Nashida over the offseason. Kuriyama spent all seven years of his playing career as an outfielder for the Yakult Swallows and won his lone Golden Glove in 1989
Kuriyama retired after the 1990 season with a career .279 average and .649 OPS and began a career in sportscasting that would last from 1991 to 2011. He entered the dugout this season with no managing or coaching experience.
“One of the things I’ve learned as a manager is that pitchers don’t know their pitch counts,” Kuriyama said. “You can become tired even after throwing 70 pitches, or you can throw 100 and feel fine. So it’s not about just the pitch count. You have to be careful about that as a manager.”
Nakamura wasn’t making the decision easy. After a shaky start, the right-hander had thrown seven scoreless innings on 77 pitches, striking out three and walking none. He’d mixed his pitches well, and the Giants didn’t look as if they were going to have an answer for him anytime soon.
Still, Kuriyama pulled the plug and sent Yuya Ishii out for the eighth, despite the fact Nakamura had yielded just five hits to that point.
“If we had given up a run, we would’ve lost,” Kuriyama said. “So I made up my mind not to be passive. I even thought of pulling him after the sixth.
“Naturally I wanted to let him go, but our relievers really did a great job. So to me, the decision to pull him wasn’t necessarily too early.”
A victory makes it easier for Kuriyama to live with the choice. Had Ishii given up two or three runs, the manager may have been in a more sour mood, but he indicated extreme confidence in his choice.
Kuriyama mentioned that he was also thinking of Nakamura’s psyche when he decide to bring him out of the game.
“I’ve come to think, especially for young players, it’s better to let him be part of a win, even if he’s pulled out of the game, rather than to let him go the distance and end up with a loss.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report