Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Hawks’ Kodai Senga awaits chance to battle Carp, but fearful of rare hitting assignment

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Kodai Senga was very matter-of-fact when asked about stepping into the batter’s box during Game 1 of the Japan Series.

“I’m scared,” the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks pitcher said simply.

Senga pitches in the Pacific League, where the DH is used, and only has 10 at-bats during his seven-year career. The right-hander is more about preventing hits than getting them (he has two in his career) and that’s what he intends to do as the Hawks’ starting pitcher during the Japan Series opener against the Hiroshima Carp on Saturday night.

“He was our starter on opening day and he’s the ace of the team,” Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo said. “We didn’t think of turning to anyone but him. We just hope he’s able to pitch the way he can.”

There’s a good reason for that.

Senga is one of the top pitchers in Japan, with his devastating “ghost fork(ball),” standing out among his arsenal. Even with a few injury concerns this year, he was 13-7 with a 3.51 ERA. He finished the regular season with a 27.9 strikeout percentage and 1.23 WHIP.

“He’s special,” SoftBank hurler Rick van den Hurk said. “He really is. He’s got special stuff. I think for his age (25), you can tell already he’s got the potential to be a superstar player. I don’t know if he’s going to try to go to the (United) States at some point, but I think that’s on his horizon. I’m excited to watch him compete tomorrow.

“His stuff is special. As a pitcher, I think he’s got a great overall ability with everything.”

Van den Hurk was effusive in his praise of Senga’s forkball.

“Oh boy. I mean, you’re talking about guys like (Masahiro) Tanaka, he’s gotta be right up there with those guys,” he said. “That tells you right there. He throws hard as well (Senga’s average fastball velocity this season was 148 kph). Throwing that split and that heater and then he’s got a slider and a curveball to compliment that. He’s a special talent.”

The Carp saw that firsthand on June 15 at Yafuoku Dome. Senga struck out 11 and walked two while allowing no runs over five innings. He picked up the victory that day as the Hawks scored seven runs in four innings against Daichi Osera, who will start the opener for the Carp.

That outing gave Senga a sense of what to expect against the Carp’s powerful lineup. Hiroshima was shut down on that day, but has been among NPB’s most formidable units over the past few seasons.

“They have a good offense,” Senga said. “It’s actually not so different from Pacific League teams. So we have to make sure we do our job. They have speed and can come up with extra-base hits. They’re kind of similar to Seibu and we have to be careful. The most important thing is our pitchers make sure we do our job.”

Senga said his emotions weren’t running any higher than usual ahead of Saturday’s game. The right-hander also downplayed the notion he has an advantage due to his past experience in the Japan Series.

“I don’t really think too much about it,” he said. “I’ll just try to do what I’ve been doing.”

Senga said he’ll be ready to pitch again if needed later in the series. He’s hoping, however, the Hawks will only need him to lead cheers the rest of the way.

“I’m hoping we win 4-0,” Senga said. “After I’m done tomorrow, I’ll support the team. If I get another chance to pitch, I’ll just focus on holding them down.”

Just don’t ask him to do anything with a bat.

Aside from having little confidence in himself to actually get a hit, Senga said he hasn’t really done much to prepare for laying down bunts, either.

“No, I haven’t done anything at all,” he said. “I told our team I wouldn’t be able to do it anyway. I’m not good at that at all. But I know I won’t be asked to do too much, so I’ll just be relaxed when I step up to the plate.”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.