Baseball / Japanese Baseball

2019 Japan Series managers take trip down memory lane on eve of Game 1

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo admitted to feeling a little bit nostalgic on the eve of this year’s Japan Series matchup against the Yomiuri Giants.

Kudo was a pitcher for Yomiuri the last time these two clubs vied for the crown. That was in 2000 during the famed O-N Showdown, which featured a managerial matchup between legendary former Yomiuri teammates Sadaharu Oh, who led the Hawks, and Shigeo Nagashima.

The Giants won that series in six games. It’s a fond memory for Kudo, but he’s hoping for a different result this time around.

“I was a Giants pitcher 19 years ago,” Kudo said after his team’s practice on Friday at Yafuoku Dome. “So it feels nostalgic. This time, as the Hawks manager, I want to give the fans a great Japan Series. I want to beat the Giants as the Hawks manager.”

Both teams practiced on Friday, with the Hawks taking the field first and the Giants working out shortly after home team was done. One of the stars of the 2000 series, Oh, who is the Hawks’ chairman, was present for SoftBank’s session, greeting many of the Hawks players as they finished.

The clubs also announced their starters for Game 1 on Saturday, with Hawks ace Kodai Senga matched up against the Giants’ Shun Yamaguchi.

SoftBank is Japan’s reigning dynasty and will be trying to win its third straight title and fifth in the last six years.

“It’s not an easy thing to do,” said Hawks outfielder Yuki Yanagita. “We want to do it and have a lot of motivation to achieve that goal.”

They’ve got plenty of experience as well. The franchise is 5-0 in the Japan Series during its SoftBank era.

Going six-for-six, however, will require beating NPB’s most celebrated club. The Giants have more Japan Series crowns than any other team and a resurgent year under manager Tatsunori Hara, who returned for his third stint with the team this year, have the Kyojin in sight of another.

“There are 12 teams in Japanese baseball,” Hara said. “There are only two teams who get to play at the very end.”

Like Kudo, Hara, also waxed nostalgic on Friday.

“I was also part of the 2000 series as the Giants’ head coach,” Hara said. “So I was on the bench. At the time, in the rivalry between Oh-kantoku (manager) and Nagashima-kantoku, the competitive spirt they had, I remember it being electric.”

Yomiuri won the Central League pennant this season and will be the latest CL club to try and loosen the vice grip Pacific League teams have had on the Japan Series recently. The Giants’ 2012 title was the last by a CL team.

Yomiuri is powered by a lineup that features CL MVP candidate Hayato Sakamoto, who hit .312 with 40 home runs, and Kazuma Okamoto, who was the CL Climax Series MVP with three homers and seven RBIs in five games, among others.

“They’re a strong opponent,” Yanagita said. “We just want to face them playing our style of baseball. We want to step up to the challenge.”

SoftBank finished second in the PL this season and had a longer route to the title series. While Yomiuri earned a bye in the first stage of the CL Climax Series, the Hawks were pushed to three games by the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in the PL first stage.

The two-time defending champions really hit their stride in the final stage, dispatching the PL champion Seibu Lions in four games. Yurisbel Gracial hit three homers for SoftBank in that series, while Kenta Imamiya, the Climax Series MVP, hit three in Game 4 alone.

“The atmosphere around the team is good,” Yanagita said. “Everyone is working with the feeling that we’ve got to win four games.”

Game 1 of the 2019 Japan Series will begin at 6:30 p.m. at Yafuoku Dome.