Fukuoka – Fukuoka Softbank Hawks pitcher Rick van den Hurk and Tokyo Yakult Swallows third baseman Shingo Kawabata had a consistent rhythm going in the top of the first inning in Game 2 of the Japan Series on Sunday night.
Van den Hurk would throw a pitch, and Kawabata would foul it off, again, and again, and again. Kawabata fouled off six straight pitches at one point until, with the 13th pitch of the at-bat, Kawabata hit a grounder, and Van den Hurk won the battle.
Just like he’s won every thing else in his first season in Japan.
“I was just focused on one pitch, executing one pitch at a time,” van den Hurk said of his long duel with Kawabata.
Sunday’s game was just the latest chapter in a memorable first season in Japan for the Dutch right-hander. He struck out seven and didn’t walk a batter over eight shutout innings to earn the win in his Japan Series debut.
“My locations were good, my fastball (was good) and my curveball today was good and I was able to locate it with two strikes and have them chase it. That was the good part today.”
Van den Hurk has been pretty good all year.
He began the year on the farm team, but instead of moping he spent that time honing his skills on the mound.
“That was time where I just focused on what I have to do; and that’s prepare myself to pitch. When I’m pitching, I want to keep focusing on what I have to do to be successful, to win games and to give the team a chance to win games. That’s what I did. I got better. I just got better and better every day.”
Van den Hurk made his ichi-gun debut June 14. He’s won every decision he’s gotten since then. Van den Hurk was 9-0 during the regular season and has now won a pair of postseason games.
In his Japan Series debut, he used he made liberal use of his curveball to keep the Swallows off-balance and only allowed three hits.
“Our starter, van den Hurk, threw just like he did during the regular season,” Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo said. “He didn’t lose all year, and he won again tonight.”
The pitcher said he knew early on that it was going to be a good night.
“When I went to warm up before the game, everyone started clapping and that made me feel great,” he said.”
The good vibrations also helped him flummox Yakult slugger Wladimir Baletien.
“He just pitched a great game today, nothing we can do about it,” Balentien said.
Van den Hurk pitched for the Netherlands during the 2009 World Baseball Classic, while Balentien was on the Dutch roster in 2013. Van den Hurk said he’s faced Balentien before (but not in Japan), but didn’t take any special feelings into the matchup.
He struck out Balentien twice and got him to fly out in his final at-bat.
“I just want to execute my pitches and focus on me and the catcher, what we’re trying to do,” van den Hurk said. “Of course I know what he’s capable of doing, but we gotta believe in our strengths so we can get an out. That’s what we were focused on and that’s it.”
Van den Hurk shifted much of the praise for Sunday’s performance to catcher Hiroaki Takaya. He said the pair worked well together and had a good rhythm throughout the game.
“After the first inning, we had a very good game plan together,” van den Hurk said. “I maybe shook (him off) twice today. He was right on. That’s a very big part of being successful. You keep your good rhythm up and you’re able to execute and you’re able to find that good rhythm to prolong the game. That’s a really big part.”
The Hawks have outshone the Swallows both on the mound and in the batter’s box over the first two games. If they keep playing like this, the team won’t need van den Hurk to make another appearance.
If Sunday was indeed his last start of the year, it was almost a perfect ending to a year in which he didn’t taste defeat and was able to come through when his team needed him.
“I’ve said many times, the credit goes to our team,” he said. “My teammates, the coaching staff, the trainers who keep us healthy, the translators; the whole organization.
“I’m just so happy to be a part of this awesome team.”