The Hanshin Tigers had their bags packed earlier in the week, they just didn’t know if they were headed for the playoffs or the offseason.
The Chunichi Dragons provided the answer on Wednesday night with a 3-0 win over the Carp in Hiroshima that secured Hanshin’s place in the first-stage of the Central League Climax Series as the third-place team.
“You just gotta get in,” said Tom O’Malley, one of the team’s hitting coaches. “Then, anything can happen.”
The Tigers arrived at Tokyo Dome Friday afternoon and practiced for about two hours on the eve of Game 1 against the second place Yomiuri Giants. The first pitch of the three-game series is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Saturday.
“It’s baseball,” said Tigers first baseman Mauro Gomez. “If the Carp had won, we would be at home right now. But we got the chance to be here and play in the playoffs. We’ll come here tomorrow, do our best, play hard and try to win.”
The host team also worked out Friday.
Yomiuri began its session at 12 p.m. and practiced for two hours. The Giants have recently been engulfed in a gambling scandal after it was revealed earlier in the week that pitcher Satoshi Fukuda bet on games (including those involving the Giants, according to a Kyodo News report). Pitcher Shoki Kasahara was also suspended in connection to the scandal. The team didn’t allow media near the home dugout while the players were on the field.
The Giants enter the series having gone 16-9 against the Tigers during the regular season. The Kyojin were 11-2 against their CL rival at Tokyo Dome.
Hanshin limped over the finish line in the CL by dropping 10 of its final 14 games during the regular season. Despite this, the team may be buoyed by last season’s CL Climax Series final stage triumph against Yomiuri. The Tigers overcame the pennant-winning Giants’ one-game advantage in that series and swept all four games at Tokyo Dome to advance to the Japan Series.
“Last year, we beat one of the best teams in Japan,” Gomez said. “Baseball is crazy. You never know what’s gonna happen. They’ve got a pretty good pitching staff and a pretty good team.”
Just reaching the Climax Series is a small victory for Hanshin. The team played its final game on Oct. 4 and was then in the unenviable position of having its fate in someone else’s hands. Fortune smiled on the Tigers when the Dragons pulled ahead of the Carp in the eighth inning and went on to knock Hiroshima out of playoff contention.
“I saw the first four innings and there were no runs, and I thought, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be close’ ” Gomez said. “Then I came back in the eighth inning and they scored three runs and then it was, ‘OK, we’re gonna be in.’
“After that, I got my mind set for the playoffs.”
He wasn’t the only one.
“You could see a little more intensity in practice after the Dragons won,” O’Malley said.
The Central League will revert back to the practice of not announcing the next day’s starting pitcher during the Climax Series. The CL made pitching announcements during the regular season.
Shintaro Fujinami (14-7, 2.40 ERA) is expected to start for the Tigers. The picture is murkier for the Giants, who could start either reigning CL MVP Tomoyuki Sugano (10-11, 1.91 ERA) or Miles Mikolas, who had the best numbers on the staff with a 13-3 record and 1.92 ERA.
“Whoever they’re going to pull out tomorrow, we’ve faced him before,” Gomez said.