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Carp have to avoid complacency as they head toward title

by Jason Coskrey

Koichi Ogata didn’t sound like a manager with a pennant on the horizon after watching his Hiroshima Carp drop two of three against the Chunichi Dragons, a team 16 games behind them in the standings, over the weekend.

“I apologize to the fans,” the Carp manager was quoted as saying by Full-Count.jp.

That’s what an 11-1 drilling, as the Carp suffered Sunday night, will do to a skipper.

“From now, we’re gonna flip the switch and take it one game at a time, we’re just going to fight,” Ogata also said.

If you only saw Ogata’s words, you’d think the Carp were in danger of missing the playoffs, or in the midst of a down year. But if you glance at the standings then it’s easy to see that, spoiler alert, the Carp are probably still going to win the pennant.

Probably isn’t even a strong enough word, only accounting for the possibility of something truly weird, like the team deciding to just go off and play golf for a month.

The Carp are 65-44-2 and 11 games clear at the top of the Central League standings. They have a magic number of 22. It’s nearly September, and they’re the only team in the league with a winning record. Sure, mathematically it’s still possible to chase them down, but it would take an epic collapse.

The only bearing poor performances have on the Carp right now is in their mental and physical preparation for the postseason, when they’ll try to finally cash in on the franchise’s recent resurgence and bring the Japan Series title back to baseball-mad Hiroshima.

The Carp, to this point, have proven they’re better than the rest of the league. The next step is to finish resurrecting the glory of the Aka-Heru Era, when the team, powered by Sachio Kinugasa, Manabu Kitabeppu and Koji Yamamoto (among others), reeled off six pennants and three Japan Series crowns from 1975-1991.

The heights of that time were followed by a prolonged dark period during which the Carp went from 1997-2013 without posting a winning record.

The team began its current rise with an aggressive, and successful, marketing campaign to attract more fans. This was no doubt helped by a move from aging Hiroshima Municipal Stadium to glittering Mazda Stadium in 2009. The team also made a concerted effort to reach out to women, which has paid off with the Carp Joshi (Carp Girls), the nickname given to the team’s legion of female fans.

On the field, Hiroshima mixed rising talents such as Ryosuke Kikuchi, Yoshihiro Maru, Yusuke Nomura, Seiya Suzuki and Kosuke Tanaka with veteran ballplayers like Takahiro Arai, Kris Johnson, the now-retired Hiroki Kuroda and others and built a winner.

This new generation of Carp has brought back memories of the past dynasty, but they won’t match those teams until they bring home the big prize. To be fair, it was easier to win a Japan Series back when the pennant winner went straight into the Fall Classic instead of the Climax Series.

Either way, the Carp haven’t won the Japan Series since 1984. Hiroshima reached the title round in 2016 only to fall against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in six games. Last season, the Carp lost Suzuki to injury late in the year and were upset by the Yokohama BayStars in the Climax Series.

Now they’re poised for another run and can’t afford any slipups, like this weekend, during a postseason where anything can happen. Ogata knows he can’t let complacency creep in even a little. His words about the Dragons series mean nothing for the regular season.

But he has to walk the walk now, to help keep everyone on point and make sure the Carp don’t really have something to be sorry about in October.