When asked about Jingu Stadium a few weeks ago, Tokyo Yakult Swallows closer Tony Barnette gave a wry smile and said, “Jingu can play games with you as a pitcher.”
The middle three games of the Japan Series, hosted by Yakult, will give the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks battery members plenty of time to find that out. They were on top of their game at home, inside at Yafuoku Dome, in the first two games. But Jingu is small, and being outside brings the elements, into play.
That’s why Softbank catcher Hiroaki Takaya, who handled the pitching staff in Games 1 and 2, entered Game 3 on Tuesday ready for anything.
“It’s important for us to get used to all the quirks here as fast as we can,” Takaya told The Japan Times before Game 3. “At the same time, we can’t dwell on it too much, and as a battery just do everything we can to keep the ball down.”
Takaya led Game 1 starter Shota Takeda through a complete-game victory in the opener, and Rick van den Hurk had nothing but praise for the 34-year-old catcher after throwing eight shutout frames in Game 2.
“I gotta give him a lot of credit,” van den Hurk said after the second game. “He really was doing a great job behind the plate.”
Takaya is a ninth-year veteran who has spent his entire career with Softbank and probably seen a little bit of everything. He’s more worried about the Swallows hitters than their ballpark.
The Softbank pitchers held the Yakult lineup in check in the first two games. Even so, the Birds are potent at the plate, especially at home, and Takaya is aware they can break out at any time. That’s especially true if star infielder Tetsuto Yamada starts to heat up.
“He’s there and (Wladimir) Balentien is there also,” Takaya said. “When they hit home runs, they can get on a roll. So we have to be extra careful when there are runners on base.”
The Swallows are also strong at the second spot in the lineup, with CL batting champion Shingo Kawabata there instead of the usual automatic sacrifice bunter.
“Even when he’s behind in the count, you can’t get him out easily,” Takaya said of the Swallows infielder, who squared off against van den Hurk for 13 pitches during a prolonged at-bat in Game 2. “We have to be aware of that and be persistent against him.”
Takaya has never been known for his bat, but he did well over the first two games with a pair of hits, though one came with a bit of luck, and an RBI. Takaya, however, spent the layoff between the Pacific League Climax Series and the Japan Series working on the other parts of his game.
“I didn’t do anything special as far as my hitting,” he said. “I just try not to fail at the small things like bunting, which is something I’ve had trouble with recently.”
His main responsibility is to keep the Hawks pitchers under control as the Pacific League power tries to capture a second consecutive Japan Series title.
“As a catcher, my focus is on the defensive side,” Takaya said. “I’m trying to draw on the strength of our pitchers so we have a better chance to win.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.