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Hawks believe quick-strike offense a big key to Japan Series success

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks will try to strike first, scoring runs early, so they can play their own brand of ball in the 2017 Japan Series.

Before Saturday’s Game 1 of the NPB championship series, Hawks hitting coach Hiroshi Fujimoto said that the Hawks would focus on getting on the board before the Yokohama BayStars.

“We want to score some runs to startle (the BayStars),” Fujimoto said. “Their first couple of hitters in the lineup don’t have much power. But we do. And we have (Seiichi) Uchikawa, who’s in top form right now, in the cleanup spot. We want to go aggressively from early (on), because they change their pitchers a lot.”

Hawks skipper Kimiyasu Kudo is on the same page as Fujimoto. He said that Yokohama has a potent offense and once it gets hot, it would be difficult to stop.

“Their hitters can keep setting the table for others,” Kudo said of the BayStars, who had a team batting average of .252 and 134 homers, both second in the Central League, this season.

“We don’t want to let them do it, and if we don’t do it, I think we are going to be able to play at our pace.”

The Hawks captured the PL pennant in dominant fashion, racking up 94 wins (49 losses). And 73 of them were in games that they scored first.

As Fujimoto hoped, the Hawks controlled the pace early, scoring three runs in the first two innings in Game 1.

Must-win mindset

Hawks right-handed pitcher Nao Higashihama, who will likely be their Game 2 starter, was sent to the mound for the first game of the PL Climax Series Final Stage against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. He allowed three runs on three home runs and took the loss.

The 27-year-old would go to the hill with a must-win attitude for Sunday’s game, which he said could be his final outing of the year.

But he doesn’t consider Sunday an occasion to avenge his previous result.

“I’ll be focusing on doing my job that I’m given by the team,” said Higashihama, who had a breakout season. He tied for the most wins in the PL (16-5) and had the fourth-best ERA (2.64) in the 2017 campaign.

Trying to win series

In a postseason series, it is often said that winning the first game is significant to take the initiative.

But Yokohama superstar Yoshitomo Tsutsugo doesn’t buy into it. He said that his team is concentrating on ultimately winning four games in the Japan Series.

“If we win the first game, we’d probably get some momentum,” the 25-year-old said. “But winning four games is our top priority.”

Tsutsugo added that the BayStars’ younger players are only thinking of contributing to the team and it has been a process.

“They don’t think of themselves any more,” the BayStars captain said. “That’s something we didn’t have last year.”

Former BayStar skipper talks

Hiroshi Gondo, who guided Yokohama to its first Japan Series championship in 38 years in 1998 as the manager, gave his perspective about this year’s BayStars team to Nikkan Sports.

The 78-year-old said that current BayStars skipper Alex Ramirez’s managerial skills and philosophies are similar to what he had 19 years ago, when his squad faced the Seibu Lions.

One of the resemblances between the two teams is that both don’t rely too much on sacrifice bunts, Gondo said.

“I was thinking like, ‘Why would we have to give up an out?’ ” Gondo was quoted as saying by Nikkan Sports.

The 2017 BayStars has 84 sac bunts, while the 1998 team had 68. Both figures were the fewest in the NPB in the respective years.

Gondo was also impressed with Ramirez’s courage. This season, Ramirez demoted slumping closer Yasuaki Yamasaki in April, but put him back in the fireman’s role in May. Gondo said that it is hard to see that from conventional Japanese skippers.