BY ROB SMAAL, STAFF WRITER
On paper, the Nippon-Ham Fighters really have no right to be going to the big dance again this year.
The team lost three key members of last year's championship squad and finished at or near the bottom of the league in several offensive categories.
Good thing the game's not played on paper.
With skipper Trey Hillman in his final year at the helm in Hokkaido, the Fighters managed to scrap their way to the Pacific League title. The Hammies overcame a woeful start to the season to finish with a 79-60-5 record, thanks in large part to a 14-game winning streak during interleague play. That put them in first place in the Pacific loop and gave the club a first-stage bye in the PL Climax Series.
After disposing of the first-stage winning Lotte Marines in five games, Hillman--who recently inked a multiyear deal to manage the Kansas City Royals beginning next season--and his Fighters are now focused on the Dragons, who have been on a tear of late and come into the Japan Series riding a five-game winning streak.
Any discussion of the Fighters' success usually begins with hard-throwing ace Yu Darvish. The young right-hander, who Hillman has called potentially one of the top pitchers in the world, is to the Fighters' pitching staff what cantankerous garage owner Ed Brown was to Chico back in the 1970s--namely "The Man." (And even though Yu's da man, at just 21 he's really still more of a kid.)
In 2007, Darvish had another standout season for the F's, finishing a narrow second in the PL in ERA (1.82) while posting 15 wins with a league-leading 210 strikeouts. In the playoffs, he beat the Marines on a five-hit, two-run complete-game effort in the opener and he also came through for the victory in the Game 5 series clincher.
"I love our pitching staff," said Nippon-Ham bench coach Dave Owen, who will be joining Hillman in Kansas City next season. "They've carried us all year. When we put the ball in guys' hands like Yu Darvish, Masaru Takeda and Ryan Glynn, and on down the line, you feel good about it. But (the Dragons) have a wonderful ballclub also. We're going up against some of their tough power hitters and it'll be interesting to see what happens."
Righty Glynn, a nine-game winner in '07, was third in the PL ERA race at 2.21, while lefty Takeda registered a 2.54 ERA and also won nine games this year for the Fighters.
In the bullpen, Hillman has his right-handed Thunder from Down Under, closer Micheal Nakamura, ready to shut down the opposition late in games. Nakamura saved 34 games for the Hammies this year after slamming the door on opposing batters 39 times and getting five wins in 2006.
Offensively, the Fighters have had to overcome the absence of last year's PL MVP Michihiro Ogasawara, one of the best pure hitters in the game who moved to the Yomiuri Giants as a free agent in the offseason.
With "Guts" off in Yomiuri-land counting his yen, veteran outfielder Atsunori Inaba stepped up and led the Pacific League in batting with a .334 average. Inaba, the Japan Series MVP last season after hitting .353 with a pair of homers and seven RBIs against the Dragons, also had 17 HRs, 87 RBIs and 39 doubles this season.
In the leadoff spot, speedy outfielder Hichori Morimoto--the heir apparent to departed spaceman Tsuyoshi Shinjo--had a solid season, posting a .300 average with 31 stolen bases. In the PLCS, Morimoto came up with some clutch hits against the Marines.
Panamanian slugger Fernando Seguignol led the team with 21 homers this season, none bigger than the three-run shot he nailed off Lotte ace Yoshihisa Naruse in Nippon-Ham's 6-2 win in Game 5 of their playoff series.
Besides having the luxury of rolling out Darvish twice, if necessary, in the best-of-seven finale, the Fighters also have home-field advantage, meaning four of the possible seven games are scheduled for Sapporo Dome.
At times, the Fighters' faithful make such a racket that Hillman has described it like being in the midst of a mild earthquake.
"These people have been behind us all year," said Owen. "In the Climax Series, the Dome was really rocking and there was a lot of electricity in the air. It was a lot of fun. Obviously it gets our players going and I don't expect anything to change for this series."
Need any more motivation? How about a nice Sapporo send-off for Hillman, who has been here five years and who last season piloted the franchise to its first Japan Series title since 1962, the year before he was born.
Says Owen: "I'm sure it's going to be emotional as it gets toward the end, but right now the guys are so focused on what they have to do and the task at hand that I just expect them to go out and play baseball, play it hard and play it the Fighter way like they've done all year."
(IHT/Asahi: October 25, 2007)