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Thursday, Oct. 12, 2006

Hammies relaxed as second stage starts

Staff writer

SAPPORO -- Enough standing around, say the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. Waiting for last weekend's first-stage Pacific League playoffs to take place may have been a bit unnerving for the PL's No. 1 seed, but if it was, the team's attitude did not reflect it in the practices leading up to Wednesday's Game 1 of the second stage.

Manager Trey Hillman cracked jokes with his players, and they were easygoing under the huge media troupe's shadow at Sapporo Dome.

When the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks beat the Seibu Lions on Sunday to push a decisive Game 3, the Fighters still stayed loose, one of the main objectives of the layoff between the end of the season and the beginning of the second round.

"We had planned to play either team," said leadoff hitter Hichori Morimoto. "We've done all our homework, and we're thoroughly prepared."

Rookie left-hander Tomoya Yagi, who will start in Game 2, echoed some of Morimoto's sentiments.

"I'm not going to worry," Yagi said when asked about the Fighters' 12-8 record against Softbank. "If I go out and pitch my game, the results will be there."

Nonetheless, the numbers are slightly skewed in favor of Nippon Ham. The Fighters hold a 3-2 advantage in games played at Sapporo Dome, a 6-4 record in those played at Yahoo Dome, and the Fighters ended the regular season having won four of five against their Kyushu rivals in the season's final month.

WIDE-OPEN SPACES: Sure, Hokkaido isn't as jam-packed with people as Tokyo, but all the extra space at Sapporo Dome seems a little bit ridiculous. The massive spans of foul territory outside the lines at the dome are, well, massive.

The baseball-soccer facility has some logistical challenges other parks in Japan do not face, perhaps, but the space does seem excessive. City blocks could be built in the area, it is so large.

In recent years, Japanese ballparks have been built with more field seats to eat up the space, and Sapporo Dome should take a look at some options. At this point, no pop foul is safe.

DECK THE HALLS: Hosting a playoff series is a new experience for Sapporo Dome and the Fighters, but they seem more than ready for the task. Sapporo is decked out with memorabilia, posters and cardboard standouts of players making sure no one in the northern city will be able to forget what is happening Wednesday and Thursday -- the Hammies are playing for a spot in the Japan Series.

During batting practice Wednesday, Nippon Ham donned new shirts and hats for the occasion, casting aside warmup jerseys for T-shirts emblazoned with the team's 2006 motto, "Dream Big, Play Hard and Live Strong."

The hat was a "trucker hat" that would look more at home in a Britney Spears publicity shoot than on the diamond.

With a one-game lead coming into the second-stage playoffs, the Fighters and their city have the dreaming part down. The rest of it will have to manifest on the field, however, during the remainder of the series.

The winner of the Pacific League will meet the Central League champion Chunichi Dragons in the Japan Series, beginning Oct. 21 at Nagoya Dome.

IT'S A HIT: Fighters pitcher Yu Darvish hit Yoichi Honda with a pitch in the first inning, keeping alive Softbank's streak of four straight games with at least one hit batsman. And shortstop Munenori Kawasaki got nailed an inning later, making it four straight with multiple hit batsmen. Ouch.

The Hawks were hit by pitches eight times in three games with Seibu. Kawasaki led the way with three plunks, suffering one in each game. Unfortunately for Kawasaki, his streak extended in Sapporo, but thanks to Honda, who became the sixth Softbank batter this postseason to take one for the team, the streak had already taken on new life in Hokkaido.

Kataoka to retire

OSAKA (Kyodo) Hanshin Tigers infielder Atsushi Kataoka said Wednesday he will retire at the end of the season after being left out of the team's plans for next year.

Kataoka, 37, began his career with the Nippon Ham Fighters in 1992 and moved to Hanshin after the 2001 season. He has a .270 career batting average with 164 homers, 716 RBIs and 1,423 hits in 1,568 games.

He's played in only 49 games this season.

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