HIROSHIMA – The Hiroshima Carp and Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters will play each other for the first time in the Japan Series, which starts on Saturday at Mazda Stadium.
While both teams are making their seventh bid to become the top baseball club in Japan, the Carp are seeking their fourth title and first in 32 years, while the Fighters will go for their franchise’s third crown, the last coming in 2006.
Hiroshima, appearing in the best-of-seven series for the first time in 25 years, had a strong regular season, clinching the Central League pennant on Sept. 10 and finishing the season with a 17½-game lead over the runner-up Yomiuri Giants.
In three interleague game this year, Hiroshima took the upper hand, posting two wins to Nippon Ham’s one, all in June in Hokkaido. But the Fighters’ Brandon Laird performed well at the plate, going 6-for-10.
As for the final stage of the Climax Series to decide each league’s representative in the Japan Series, key players were Carp leadoff man Kosuke Tanaka, who hit .833 in four games, and Fighters slugger Sho Nakata, who had two home runs and drove in five runs in as many games.
“We both are really good teams,” Carp outfielder Brad Eldred said. “It seems about right to face each other for the Japan Series. … A lot of good pitchers, a lot of good hitters on both sides, so it should be interesting.”
Nippon Ham has one player in Shohei Otani who excels at both.
The 22-year-old stole the show in the PL Climax Series Final Stage finale on Sunday, rewriting his own record by firing 165-kph fastballs three times in the ninth inning en route to picking up his first save in Nippon Professional Baseball.
He had also started the opener of the PL Climax Series Final Stage when he pitched seven shutout innings for the win and played in the next four games as designated hitter, until taking the mound in the final inning on the last day.
Fighters skipper Hideki Kuriyama said he will start Otani in Saturday’s game.
“This year has a lot of meaning for the team and for him,” he told a news conference at Mazda Stadium on Friday.
Kuriyama, who also managed Nippon Ham in 2012 when the team lost the Japan Series to the Yomiuri Giants, said his expectations of Otani are “limitless” and reiterated his intention to make up for the failure to win the Japan Series four years ago.
Otani said he personally likes Mazda Stadium because the atmosphere is good, but he previously played a game at the 7-year-old ballpark only once during his rookie year in 2013 and the last time he pitched against the Carp was in 2014.
“I might get nervous, but I hope to be able to perform as usual,” Otani said. “I’m hoping we’ll somehow be able to win the first game and play good ball.”
One concern, however, is the absence of closer Chris Martin, who returned to the United States this week after aggravating an injury to his left ankle.
The Carp will send Kris Johnson to start Game 1. The lefty went the distance in the first game of the CL Climax Series Final Stage, throwing a three-hit shutout in front of Hiroshima’s sea of enthusiastic red-clad spectators.
“The fans gave us power with their cheers throughout the season and we’re filled with joy at being able to play along with them until the very end,” Hiroshima manager Koichi Ogata said.
“The question is whether we can play baseball like we normally do. We want to place strong importance on that as we battle.”
Ogata also unveiled his plan to send Hiroki Kuroda, who announced Tuesday that he will retire after the end of the Japan Series, to the mound in Game 3 at Sapporo Dome.
“This Japan Series is not all about Kuroda. The pitching rotation is aimed at becoming No. 1 in Japan with the help of Kuroda,” Ogata said.
The 41-year-old right-hander, who also played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees, was business as usual in Friday’s practice.
“There are only two teams left. I hope we can play a good series,” Kuroda said. “The important thing is to go to the mound in the best condition.”
The Carp also have a reliable bullpen, including reliever Jay Jackson and closer Shota Nakazaki.
After the first two games at Hiroshima’s home stadium, the best-of-seven series will move to Sapporo Dome for a maximum of three games starting Tuesday. If the championship is not decided in Hokkaido, it will return to Mazda Stadium next weekend.