Ace Tanaka leads Eagles quest to reach Japan Series for first time


Masahiro Tanaka’s record-setting regular season is over and starting Thursday, he and his Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles teammates will set their sights on making more history in the final stage of the Pacific League Climax Series against the Chiba Lotte Marines.

After winning the franchise’s first pennant, the Eagles will turn their attention to bringing the Japan Series to Sendai for the first time.

But to get there, they will need to defeat the Marines in the best-of-six series at Kleenex Stadium. After going a record 24-0 this year, Tanaka is slated to start Game 1.

During the regular season, Tanaka went 3-0 in three starts against the Marines with a 0.75 ERA.

“I don’t feel any nerves yet, but there is a feeling that at last it’s finally starting,” Tanaka said on Friday, when he went through his normal pre-start routine.

“I don’t think it’s any different from the regular season, but it’s very important that I take the lead in order for the team to gain momentum. I want to go after our opponents.”

Eagles skipper Senichi Hoshino has managed in three Japan Series but is making his debut in the Climax Series, a format that was adopted in 2007.

“Surprisingly, everyone seems calm and collected. Perhaps some nerves will come out tomorrow,” he said. “There’s no urge to do anything different, just go with our usual arrangements, I think.”

The Marines struggled at the end of the regular season but regained their footing in the decisive final game of the first stage against the Seibu Lions.

“I want Tanaka to do what he needs to do — to slow them down,” Hoshino said.

As league champs, the Eagles begin the series with one win to their credit and will advance to the Japan Series if the final stage ends in a tie.

The winner here will take on the winner of the CLCS final stage at Tokyo Dome between the league champion Yomiuri Giants and the Hiroshima Carp.

The Eagles went 14-10 against the Marines this season and were 10-2 against them in Sendai. Lotte, however, went into its first-stage series at Seibu Dome having gone 3-9 there this season.

The Marines will go with out-of-sorts, left-handed ace Yoshihisa Naruse, who pitched two good games against the Eagles early in the season.

Naruse, however, hasn’t pitched well since June 8, spent three months on the farm due to “poor form,” and was hammered in Lotte’s season finale, when the Marines needed to win to clinch home-field advantage in the first stage.

Ironically, the previous Sendai-based team to play in the Japan Series was Lotte.

The 1974 PL champion Lotte Orions’ principle home park that year was the same stadium. Unfortunately at that time, the park did not have the required capacity to host Series games and Lotte’s home games were played at Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium.

Since entering baseball as an expansion franchise in 2005, Rakuten has remodeled the stadium and added seats — although the team has had to rush to add even more this autumn to reach an acceptable capacity for Series play.