Aggressive-minded pitchers find success for Eagles

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

You’ve got to play aggressively — that’s one of the cliches that has been used millions of times in sports.

And also, that’s one of the things that you can hardly execute, especially at the professional level, because audaciousness sometimes turns to recklessness that can cost teams (or individuals) games and championships.

But the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles put an emphasis on the positivity that comes from that aggressiveness. They truly believe that their positive results will bring good fortune and victories for the team.

“If you keep attacking, attacking and attacking, you’ll get a result like this. We believe in that,” Eagles skipper Senichi Hoshino said after Rakuten took a 2-1 lead in the Japan Series with a 5-1 win over the Yomiuri Giants in Game 3 on Tuesday night at Tokyo Dome.

And for this year’s Pacific League champions, their offense is not the only way to exhibit that ferociousness. Their pitching also backs up Hoshino’s you-lose-if-you-don’t-fight philosophy.

It’s no different when they the face powerful Giants hitters on the sport’s biggest stage.

After hard-nosed hurlers Takahiro Norimoto and Masahiro Tanaka delivered splendid performances from the mound in Games 1 and 2 at Kleenex Stadium in Sendai last weekend, Manabu Mima, who posted a 6-5 record with a 4.12 ERA in the regular season, followed the two and tamed Yomiuri in game 3, going strong for 5 2/3 scoreless innings.

“Well, they do give you a lot of pressure,” Mima said of the Giants offense, which led the Central League in average (.262, tied with the Yokohama BayStars), home runs (145) and slugging percentage (.400) in 2013.

“But … no, I won’t say no more,” Mima said, swallowing his words, laughingly, with the intention of not motivating the Giants for the reminder of the series. “I should not say unnecessary things.”

Mima, a small-built 169-cm pitcher who doesn’t necessarily have an overwhelming fastball, did attack the Giants hitters, tossing many pitches inside. He also used his off-speed curveball effectively.

When he pitched, Mima said that he was thinking that giving up solo homers would be fine at the home run-friendly Big Egg.

“I tried not to have runners on base by walking them,” he said. “Solo shots would be no problem. And I could boldly attack inside.”

Furthermore, credit the cunning leadership of catcher Motohiro Shima, who has played a vital role behind the success of the Eagles pitching staff, which allowed just 13 hits and four runs in the first three games of the series. The Eagles pitchers fanned 31 batters in that span.

In fact, Mima humbly gave credit to the 28-year-old backstop for holding the Giants in check.

“He instructed me to throw confidently, swinging my arm as hard as I could,” Mima said of Shima’s lead on Tuesday night. “It really made me feel (able) to pitch a lot easier.”

Shima, who’s often been blamed for the team’s losses by receiving harsh words by Hoshino and his predecessor Katsuya Nomura, said that he’s been one of the Eagles players who have made the biggest progress this year.

Shima, the chairman of the NPB players union, has said nothing about his own leadership skills, but praised his pitchers in the Japan Series. Instead, Hoshino delivered rare praise for his catcher.

“Shima was sharp in his leading,” Hoshino said with a grin. “(The Giants) are the champions. If you are running away from them, you eventually get caught.”

Of course, you never know what the future holds and the Giants offense could wake up all of a sudden.

But in order for Yomiuri to do that, it will perhaps have to do something with Shima behind the plate as much as with the Eagles pitchers on the mound.

“The (Giants) hitters are hesitant against Shima’s lead,” former Giants star Sadaaki Yoshimura told Sports Nippon newspaper.

And maybe the Eagles have had a few more fortunate moments, too. Or perhaps the Giants hitters are having down time. So even when the Rakuten pitchers couldn’t locate their pitches where they wanted to, they were lucky enough to not suffer big damage.

“I really just didn’t get the fastball in like I wanted to,” said Kenny Ray, who made an emergency appearance after Mima was pulled from the mound due to an injury, about getting Shuichi Murata out for the final out of the sixth inning in Game 3.

“I got it in enough that he didn’t get it out of the park, but it wasn’t the pitch I wanted to throw. I wanted to get it a little more in.”

Staff writer Jason Coskrey contributed to this report.