Former roommates will be fighting like brothers to decide baseball's best team as the Japan Series opens tonight at Sapporo Dome.
The Pacific League champion Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters play host to the Central League-winning Yomiuri in Game 1 at 6:15 p.m. as the Giants try to win their first Series title since 2002.
The teams which shared Tokyo Dome from 1988-2003 and Korakuen Stadium before that square off for the second time in Series history. In their previous showdown in 1981, the Giants got the best of the Korakuen clash, winning in six games.
"It was my rookie year," recalled Yomiuri manager Tatsunori Hara at a press conference at Sapporo Dome on Friday.
"The benches we sat on were different for home and away games, but the field was the same.
"Since they moved to Hokkaido, this is the first time facing them, and this team is just what the name implies--Fighters. And they're good in every phase of the game.
"We want to go chest-to-chest with them and surpass what they do."
The Giants, who were knocked out of the playoffs in 2007 after winning the CL title and stumbled in seven games against the Seibu Lions in last year's Series, have had their eye on this moment all season.
"We started on Feb. 1 and the target was to win it all," Hara said. "It's not easy to get here, but we did and now we have to charge toward the goal with confidence and pride and do our best to reach it."
Alex Ramirez, coming off his first batting title in nine years in Japan, said the Giants will settle for nothing less than the big prize.
"It's been a long season and we've been good the whole season," said Ramirez, who agreed to a two-year contract extension on Thursday. "They brought me here to do a job and to help this team win a championship. Last year we were one game short, and hopefully this time we don't go to Game 7. I know that it's not going to be easy, these games, but we have confidence in ourselves that we can beat these guys in five or six games."
The Fighters have grown very comfortable in their own home since 2004 and plan on defending it. They did so in two interleague games in May, beating the Giants 16-6 and 6-5. But Yomiuri won its two home games against Nippon Ham.
"We want to play the way we did in the regular season and that's playing good defense," said Nippon Ham skipper Masataka Nashida said.
"On offense, we can't try to do too much. We have to think about getting the next guy to the plate--throw out the idea of 'me, me,' and try to bunch hits together," said Nashida, whose Fighters led Japan with 689 runs.
They also have to contend with slugger Michihiro Ogasawara, a two-time league MVP--in both the CL and PL--who spent 10 years with the Fighters before leaving as a free agent after leading Nippon Ham to the Series title in '06.
Nashida said the Giants, the top-scoring CL team with 650 runs, are well known for power but have weapons throughout their lineup.
"They like to run, and we can't allow them to do that," said Nashida, who guided the Kintetsu Buffaloes to the Series in 2001. "[Hayato] Sakamoto and [Tetsuya] Mastumoto at the top of their lineup can do damage when they get on base in front of Ogasawara and Ramirez."
The Giants figure to send 15-game winner Dicky Gonzalez to mound in the opener. Lefty Tetsuya Utsumi, Hisanori Takahashi and Wirfin Obispo are the other likely starters for the Giants.
Ace Yu Darvish is likely out of the Series with a bad back, but Masaru Takeda is expected to start Game 1 for the Fighters, with Keisaku Itokazu, Shugo Fujii and Brian Sweeney the likely rotation. The left-handed Takeda has a five-run, 1/3-inning Game 3 start in the 2007 Series loss to the Chunichi Dragons still burning in his memory.
"Two years ago I couldn't even get out of the first inning. It was valuable experience for me and I haven't forgotten the frustration I felt," Takeda said.
"It's a short series and you do want a game to be decided in the first inning so when I'm on the mound, I want to get us off to a good start so we can build up some momentum."
In other baseball news:
--The Saitama Seibu Lions will work out former Phillies catcher Pete LaForest in their autum camp starting on Nov. 1. The 31-year-old Quebec native has played 68 major league games.