Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Hawks’ Seiichi Uchikawa, BayStars’ Yoshitomo Tsutsugo determined to deliver quality Japan Series

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

While one team is no stranger to the biggest stage, the other squad returned there for the first time in nearly two decades.

For both teams, the mental approach for the 2017 Japan Series is essentially the same: Try to keep playing the way they have all season.

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks veteran star Seiichi Uchikawa admitted that there was a unique mood surrounding his team at practice on Friday, one day before the series starts at Yafuoku Dome.

“We’re feeling a little unusual atmosphere before something big begins,” said the 35-year-old Uchikawa, who’s helped the Pacific League club make four trips to the NPB championship series since his arrival in 2011. “It gives us a little bit of mixed emotions, like the excitement and worries.”

Uchikawa added, however, that the way the Hawks compete in the Japan Series wouldn’t be different than in the regular season and the playoffs.

“There’s nothing we don’t know about (playing in the Japan Series),” the Hawks cleanup hitter said. “So we are not going to make any major changes coming in it.”

One of the biggest storylines for this series is Uchikawa facing his former team, the BayStars, for whom he played for 10 years.

But the two-time batting champion chose not to talk about it too much, attempting to only focus on winning the series.

“I don’t care a straw about it,” said Uchikawa, who captured his third Climax Series MVP award after the final stage against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. “We just want to showcase battles that are deserving to determine the best in the country. We want to make it a series that the fans would be satisfied with and say, ‘It was a great series’ when the series is over.”

Compared to the Hawks, the BayStars have a legitimate reason to raise their morale as one of the two teams still playing for the first time since it won the Japan Series title in 1998, having beaten the Central League’s top two-seeded teams, the Hanshin Tigers and Hiroshima Carp, this postseason.

But Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Yokohama’s young captain, said that the team would be able to play the best-of-seven series with the same state of mind that it’s possessed all year.

“Since the Climax Series was over (by beating the Carp in the final stage), we’ve spent good times,” Tsutsugo said. “We are the only two teams remaining that have the right to play games in Japan at this point. I’m happy about it and excited that we’re playing our first (Japan) Series (with this squad).”

But the 25-year-old slugger added that once the team steps onto the diamond on Saturday, it would not try to do too much. Instead, it would just stick to Yokohama skipper Alex Ramirez’s instructions.

Before team practice on Friday evening, Ramirez made it clear at a news conference that he would use Tsutsugo, a below-average fielder, in left field for Game 1. That’s what he’s done all year.

A reporter asked Ramirez if he’d potentially use Tsutsugo at designated hitter.

In response, Tsutsugo said that he would have no problem doing what Ramirez thought would be best for the team.

“Our manager is our top guy for the Yokohama DeNA BayStars,” said Tsutsugo, who led the CL in home runs (44) and RBIs (110) in 2016. “You just try to respond to what he wants you to do. That’s the responsibility as his players.”

The ‘Stars cleanup hitter added: “We are professional ballplayers. Whether you play as the DH or are taking the field, nothing should be your excuses. You just do your best no matter what kind of circumstances you are playing in and that’s how professional players are supposed to be.”