FUKUOKA – Shortly before the end of the Japan Series managers’ meeting the skippers of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and Yomiuri Giants were asked to name their starters for Game 1.
Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo spoke first, grabbing a mic and stating simply with no hesitation, “For the Hawks it’s Kodai Senga,” Giants skipper Tatsunori Hara, spoke with similar conviction as he named Shun Yamaguchi as his man.
Just like that, a blockbuster Japan Series got a blockbuster pitching matchup to kick things off.
There’s a great chance either Senga or Yamaguchi will be named this year’s Sawamura Award winner on Monday in Tokyo. Before that, though, they’ll try to give their team an early advantage in this year’s Japan Series in Game 1 on Saturday at Yafuoku Dome in Fukuoka.
Both pitchers figure to receive a lot of attention from the Sawamura Award committee, which will announce its choice for the best pitcher in Japan in 2019 between Games 2 and 3 of the Japan Series.
Which makes the opener a prime opportunity for fans to see two of the best in the game at work.
For Senga, it will be the third straight year he starts Game 1 of the Japan Series.
He was 13-8 with a 2.79 ERA and an NPB-best 227 strikeouts during the regular season. He had 20 quality starts among his 26 outings and a 1.16 walks plus hits per innings pitched (WHIP).
The 26-year-old shut down Japan’s best offense in his last playoff start, holding the Seibu Lions to no runs and two hits while striking out 10 over eight innings in Game 3 of the Pacific League Climax Series Final Stage.
“Because he’s our ace,” Kudo said, “I’m hoping he’ll pitch the way he did in the final stage. I have really high expectations.”
He allowed a pair of runs and struck out 11 over six innings in a win over the Giants earlier this year.
Senga threw a no-hitter against the Chiba Lotte Marines at Yafuoku Dome in September, the 91st no-hitter in NPB history. He’ll be pitching against the man who threw No. 90 on Saturday.
Yamaguchi threw his no-hitter against the Chunichi Dragons in 2018. He may not have thrown one this year, but he’s put up big numbers for Yomiuri. The Giants righty led the Central League with 15 wins (four losses) and 188 strikeouts. His 2.91 ERA was the third-best in the CL and he also had a 1.16 WHIP.
He threw seven innings of one-run ball in a win against the Hawks during interleague play this year.
“His fastball has good velocity and he has good control,” Hawks outfielder Yuki Yanagita said of Yamaguchi. “He’s an amazing pitcher who doesn’t have any weak spots. I think he’ll be a difficult opponent.”
Unlike Senga, Yamaguchi will be pitching in the Japan Series for the first time.
“I just have to face them one by one and try to hold them down,” Yamaguchi said of facing SoftBank.