YOKOHAMA - As can be expected, the top two teams of the first half, the Central League’s Hiroshima Carp and Pacific League’s Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, were well represented during this year’s NPB All-Star Series.
Seven members of the Carp were on the CL roster, while the Hawks had six players flying the PL banner.
“The team’s condition is really good right now,” Carp pitcher Yusuke Nomura told The Japan Times on Saturday at Yokohama Stadium before Game 2 of the All-Star Series. “I’m really happy we’re able to be here.”
The break allowed players from both teams to get a breather before the long fight to the finish that lies ahead.
“We want to be No. 1, and we’re going to keep working toward that and do our best to win,” said Hawks shortstop Kenta Imamiya. “I want to try to do everything I can to help the team.”
The Hawks are the two-time defending PL and Japan Series champions. The team went into the break with a six-game lead over the second-place Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
“We’re in second place, but there is a lot of exciting baseball to be played in the second half,” said Fighters ace/designated hitter Shohei Otani. “The Fighters will do our best during the remainder of the season.
It won’t be easy to chase down the well-rounded Hawks, who lead the PL with 383 runs scored and are the only team with an ERA (2.93) under 3.00.
“We have so many amazing hitters,” said Imamiya, who is hitting .265 and leads the team with 24 sacrifice bunts. “I’m just doing my part to help (Yuki) Yanagita-san and (Seiichi) Uchikawa-san have success. I want to do what I can to help us win and hold on to a starting position.”
While the Hawks were mostly unchallenged last year, the Fighters are within striking distance thanks to a long winning streak shortly before the break.
“We just have to do the exact same thing we were doing,” said Fighters third baseman Brandon Laird. “We had that 15-game win streak, and during that we swept the Hawks.
“We’ve gotta play our game. We have great pitching, a good lineup and it’s going to be interesting.”
The Carp’s spot atop the pecking order is more secure, and fans are daring to dream that their long wait for another CL pennant may be nearing its end. Hiroshima, which last won the pennant in 1991, was 10-games ahead of the second-place Yomiuri Giants at the break.
Nomura has been a big part of the team’s success. With a Kenta Maeda-sized hole in the rotation to start the season, Nomura is off to the best start of his career. The fifth-year pro leads the league with 11 wins and is third with a 2.50 ERA.
The CL won the first All-Star game 5-4 on Friday and the leagues tied 5-5 on Saturday.With the break over, it’s back to business as usual on Monday.
“I don’t think anything changes,” Carp slugger Brad Eldred said. “The rest of the team, the guys who are not involved in the All-Star Game, is at home just recuperating and getting ready for the second half.
“The mindset, I think, is the same, just stay aggressive and keep playing hard. I think we have the talent and the players and everybody believes that we can do it. We’re just going to keep pushing and see what we can do.”