After coming off a monster series against the Rakuten Eagles, Nippon-Ham Fighters slugger Terrmel Sledge has had to go undercover in Sapporo. Not that he's complaining.
"Everywhere I go I'm noticed and the first thing people ask about is the Japan Series," said Sledge as his club prepared for Saturday's Game 1 against the Central League's Yomiuri Giants at Sapporo Dome. "Everywhere I go, the taxi driver, at the mall, I wear a hat to hide my little Afro, it doesn't matter, everyone's talking about the Series. I feel like a rock star up here."
Sledge, a 32-year-old Korean-American who played previously with the Washington Nationals and San Diego Padres, has only himself to blame for his suddenly burgeoning fame. In Stage 2 of the Pacific League Climax Series against Rakuten, Sledge cemented his place in the hearts of the Fighters' faithful when he clubbed a game-winning, come-from-behind walkoff grand slam in the opener to put his team up 2-0 in the series. (No, that's not a typo--the NPB braintrust gave the league champions a 1-0 lead heading into the series.)
And Sledge wasn't done yet. He would go on to hit another home run in the clincher, a three-run shot off Eagles ace Hisashi Iwakuma, and he was 6-for-17 with 10 RBIs over the four games actually played.
"In all my years of playing baseball this is probably the hottest I've been," said Sledge, who hit .266 during the regular season, his second in Japan. "I've been thinking along with the opposing pitchers and catchers. I've been pretty much in sync with them."
And the Hammies are likely going to need another big series out of their outfield import as the team has taken a big hit in the pitching department.
Ace Yu Darvish has been battling a bad back and the club has said he may miss the whole series--"may" being the operative word here, as he could possibly be used in short relief. Darvish, who led the PL with a 1.73 ERA to go along with his 15 wins and 167 strikeouts this season, is not a man easily replaced in a pitching rotation.
"It hurts a lot," said Sledge when asked about Darvish's absence. "He's the No. 1 pitcher in Japan, our top star. Losing a guy like him, you're talking about losing seven innings-plus, day in, day out. That's not only losing likely a sure win on our side, but it gives our bullpen a day of rest (when Darvish pitches), even our closer usually gets a rest. Taking that workhorse out of our starting pitching staff hurts a lot."
In his absence, F's skipper Masataka Nashida will roll out lefty Masaru Takeda (10-9, 3.55 ERA, 1.18 WHIP), right-hander Keisaku Itokazu (4-5, 4.56 ERA, 1.13 WHIP), lefties Tomoya Yagi (9-3, 2.88 ERA) and Shugo Fujii (7-5, 3.53 ERA), and American right-hander Brian Sweeney (5-8, 5.32 ERA).
In the bullpen, Nashida has a couple of very capable right-handers in Kazumasa Kikuchi (21 holds, 3.67 ERA, 1.14 WHIP) and closer Hisashi Takeda, who led the league with 34 saves.
On offense, Sledge is not the Fighters' only weapon. While the Giants often rely on the longball to put runs on the board, the Hamsters are more inclined to get men on base and move them over. Four Fighters hit .300 or better this year, led by Shinji Takahashi (.309), Yoshio Itoi (.306), Makoto Kaneko (.304) and Atsunori Inaba (.300).
Inaba, Japan Series MVP when Nippon-Ham won it all in 2006, also belted 17 HRs and drove in 85 runs this season. Sledge's 27 homers were tops on the club and he also drove in 88 runs, despite missing time with the swine flu late in the season, while Eiichi Koyano contributed offensively in 2009 with 83 RBIs.
Itoi had 15 home runs and stole 24 bases for the club while second-baseman Kensuke Tanaka hit .283 and swiped 31 bags.
Looking ahead to the Central League Giants, Sledge says it will be a series marked by contrasting styles.
"It's like apples and oranges, the differences," Sledge pointed out. "You have the power team over there. You have the Tokyo Dome and their power lineup with their big stars. Here you have a team like ours that is very quote-unquote pitching-oriented, relies on defense, plays in a bigger ballpark. I think it's going to be a good battle--opposites attract, if you know what I mean."
The Fighters and Giants split the season series in 2009, with each club winning a pair in their home ballpark.