After winning their first Central League title in 14 years, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows are taking nothing for granted ahead of the CL Climax Series final stage against the Yomiuri Giants.
A day before the two teams battle for the right to play in the Japan Series, manager Mitsuru Manaka said Tuesday that the playoffs would be business as usual for his young team with little postseason experience.
“They (the Giants) are experienced champions. We’ve played all season like we were underdogs with nothing to lose and I don’t see that changing,” said the rookie skipper, whose club finished last the previous two seasons.
“A short championship series is a little different animal from the regular season, you lose and you’re out. But at the same time, you can’t dwell on that.
“We have gotten this far because of our tenacity. I think we can compete well enough and I trust our guys. We can win if we pay attention on each pitch.”
The six-game series at historic Jingu Stadium, the champs’ home park, will begin with the Swallows holding a one-win advantage, with Yakult advancing if the series is tied.
On Monday, the Giants finished off the Hanshin Tigers in a three-game set that saw 25-year-old leadoff man Soichiro Tateoka reach base six times and score three of Yomiuri’s eight runs.
“That No. 1 hitter is a guy we need to get out. He creates scoring opportunities, and we’re going to have to find a way to keep him on base,” Manaka said.
The Swallows went 12-13 during the regular season against the Giants, including a loss to Yomiuri in their meaningless season finale. But Yakult went 8-3 at home against manager Tatsunori Hara’s club. Unfortunately, seven of those home games were started by Yakult’s top two pitchers, ace lefty Masanori Ishikawa and Yasuhiro Ogawa.
“The one difference between this and the regular season is in how we manage the pitching,” said Manaka, who gave a glimpse of that as the pressure mounted in the final days of the season.
“Normally, we never want to put an undue burden on our pitchers, but some guys will likely get more work and some starters might go longer…”
Yakult’s season was the story of strong pitching and defense and a trio of big hitters, batting champion Shingo Kawabata, 23-year-old home run and stolen base champion Tetsuto Yamada and RBI leader Kazuhiro Hatakeyama.
“The focus has been on a few players, but each and every man will have to do his job,” Manaka said. “Yamada is young and inexperienced, but he’s surrounded by good hitters. If he just tries to put the ball in play and keep rallies alive, he’ll do well.”
One player who missed most of the season, but who could make a huge impact is Wladimir Balentien, who two years ago set Japan’s single-season home run record (60).
Balentien struggled with his timing at the end of the season, but has been getting in a lot of swings in Miyazaki Prefecture, where the Swallows played instructional league games since the end of the season.
“He has had a tough time of it,” Manaka said. “But he badly wants to compete and contribute. I think he’ll be fine.”
In Fukuoka, the defending Japan Series champion Fukuoka Softbank Hawks will face the third-place Chiba Lotte Marines in the Pacific League Climax Series final stage.
Five years ago, the third-place Marines came into Fukuoka, knocked off the champs in a huge upset and then went on to win the Japan Series — the only time that has been managed by a third-place team.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.