Cinderella Story turned up a notch in Japan Series clash
SENDAI, Oct. 25 (18:30) Kyodo
Undoubtedly the Cinderella Story of the year has been the
Rakuten Eagles led by the superhuman exploits of ace right-hander
Masahiro Tanaka, who went on an undefeated tear to help catapult his
team into its first-ever Japan Series.
As if the drama couldn't get any more enticing, the Pacific
League-winning Eagles, who are in their ninth year in existence, have
booked a meeting against the oldest, richest and most storied
franchise in Japanese baseball: the mighty Yomiuri Giants.
"Yesterday we had the draft and I think things went well for us.
So I feel upbeat. Perhaps the players are a little nervous, but
tomorrow I expect they'll be ready," said Eagles skipper Senichi
Hoshino on Friday, referring to winning the negotiating rights to
highly regarded lefty Yuki Matsui at Nippon Professional Baseball's
amateur draft the previous day.
When the teams lock horns for the best-of-seven series getting
under way Saturday at Rakuten's home stadium in Sendai, Tanaka and
his cohorts will get their chance to bask in the sun like never
before, with the added bonus of potentially pulling off one of the
biggest upsets in the history of the Japanese Fall Classic.
"I feel like I'm really prepared to pitch. The Giants are a
strong team. I can't say concretely what exactly it is about them,
but neither can they about us," Tanaka, who went 24-0 this season
with a league-best 1.27 ERA, said after an indoor practice at Kleenex
Stadium on Friday.
"Just like in the Climax Series we have a chance to start here
at home. We have to bring out more than our opponent can. I'm really
happy our fans will be rooting for us here at home."
The teams were dead even, going 2-2 against each other in
interleague play this season. Tanaka earned both of those wins,
throwing a complete game against the Giants in a 2-1 come-from-behind
win versus 2011 Rookie of the Year Hirokazu Sawamura on May 22.
On June 9, Tanaka won again with seven shutout innings of
three-hit ball against Giants lefty ace Tetsuya Utsumi, who was
tagged for five runs in four innings in a 5-3 loss.
Hisayoshi Chono's homer leading off the first game was Tanaka's
only run allowed, and Shuichi Murata went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts
against the right-hander over the two games.
Three of the four games were decided by two or fewer runs, with
the only blowout coming against Rakuten's Manabu Mima, who got banged
around for six runs and six hits in one inning of a 10-4 defeat on
Giants rookie Tomoyuki Sugano, the nephew of Yomiuri skipper
Tatsunori Hara, allowed three runs and six hits with seven strikeouts
over 6-1/3 innings in a 5-3 win against Rakuten on June 8.
"Our opponent is a great champion with loads of experience in
the Series, but I am looking forward to the fight. I only watch them
once in awhile, and we only play them in interleague. I watched all
their games (in their sweep) against the Carp (in the Climax Series).
Very impressive," Hoshino said.
Aside from Tanaka, the revamped Eagles have benefited from the
likes of 15-game winning rookie Takahiro Norimoto, seasoned veteran
reliever and former major leaguer Takashi Saito, and set-up man Koji
Aoyama this season.
"I don't feel like this is the opening of series. It just feels
like my turn in the rotation," said the 22-year-old Norimoto.
One player the Eagles have sorely missed since September is
closer Darrell Rasner, who underwent Tommy John surgery on his right
elbow and might never return.
Casey McGehee and Andruw Jones have added a one-two punch at the
plate with 54 of the team's 97 homers between them. They combined for
187 of Rakuten's 593 RBIs.
"Anytime you have chance to win anything, there's no greater
high in the world. That's what we all do it for. We have a good team.
We've pitched well, played good defense and done a good job of
getting on base. Even when we've had trouble scoring runs, we've
given ourselves chances. Throw something at the wall, something's
gonna stick eventually," said McGehee, who played for the New York
Yankees in 2012.
Tanaka, who turns 25 on Nov. 1 and has become a major target of
big league scouts for next year, pitched a 2-0 shutout against the
Lotte Marines in Game 1 of the PL Climax Series final stage and came
out in the ninth to post the save in the Game 4 clincher.
"Even if he's behind, he has a knack for putting a stop to it
and not letting things get out of hand," McGehee said of Tanaka.
"There are a lot of guys with good stuff, but then you wonder why the
numbers don't add up. He's clearly gone out there and not taken any
days off. Even if it's a match-up that looks favorable on paper, he
doesn't take it for granted. There are no rules in a dog fight, and
that's kind of how he is."
Jones has played in two World Series with the Atlanta Braves but
never won a championship.
"Since the beginning of the season, we have wanted to bring a
championship to the city of Sendai," said Jones. "The fans came
together to support us and showed a lot of zeal throughout the
playoffs. It was a good series against Chiba Lotte. Now we're looking
forward to this series against the Giants. Hopefully, we can play the
same baseball we played against Lotte," he said.
Hara and Hoshino decided in the customary mangers' meeting this
year to announce starting pitchers for the series -- something which
is rarely done. It will actually be Norimoto, not Tanaka, who will
start Game 1. Utsumi will take the mound for the Giants, it was
announced after a managers' meeting the same day.
"I have to be careful of all of the batters, not just McGehee
and Jones," said Utsumi. "I want to pitch carefully inning by inning
and keep my focus. I wasn't satisfied with the way I pitched in the
Climax but my form is definitely better now."
It will be the third consecutive year that league champions play
each other in the Japan Series. The Giants are aiming to win their
second in a row, a feat they have not achieved since winning nine
straight championships from 1965-1973.
"I see no merits or demerits with announcing starting pitchers,"
said Hara. "We decided in our discussion that it would be a good idea
to give the fans excitement. Both I and manager Hoshino feel this is
what is good for baseball."
The weather forecast doesn't look good for Saturday's game at
Kleenex Stadium: Typhoon Francisco is expected to bring strong rains
across a wide swath of eastern Japan from Friday night.
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