/

Fighters clinch Japan Series championship

by Stephen Ellsesser

SAPPORO — Hokkaido didn’t have to wait long for its first Japan Series championship.

News photo
Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters players give manager Trey Hillman Japan’s traditional `doage’ after
clinching their first Japan Series title in 44 years Thursday by defeating the Chunichi Dragons 4-1 at
Sapporo Dome.
KYODO PHOTOS

Three years after the Nippon Ham Fighters packed their bags for the northern island, they became Japan Series champions, clinching the title with a 4-1 victory over the Chunichi Dragons in Game 5 of the series Thursday at Sapporo Dome.

Hokkaido had never hosted Japan Series’ games before this week, and a crowd of 42,030 — a series high — turned out for the decisive game as Nippon Ham finished the postseason with a perfect home record.

“I can’t put it into words,” said Fighters manager Trey Hillman, who became the second foreign manager to win the Japan Series after Bobby Valentine won it last season. “So many pieces have come together, but the bottom line is that without our fans, we would not be where we are now.”

Yu Darvish won his rematch with Dragons ace Kenshin Kawakami, and Fernando Seguignol hit his second Japan Series homer, breaking a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the sixth inning.

Atsunori Inaba added a solo homer in the eighth, cementing his MVP candidacy. Inaba hit .375 (6-for-16) in the Japan Series with two homers — including a three-run shot in Game 3 — managing more timely hits individually than Chunichi did in the entire series.

“I was really nervous for the playoffs,” Inaba said. “That made me want it even more. The Hokkaido fans pushed us to this title.”

It was the franchise’s first championship since winning the Japan Series in 1962, when it was known as the Toei Flyers, capping a turnaround from last season, when it finished 26 1/2 games out of first place, fifth out of six teams in the Pacific League.

News photoHokkaido Nippon Ham star outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo sheds tears at the end of the Japan Series
after the Fighters beat the Chunichi Dragons 4-1 to clinch their first championship in 44 years on
Thursday at Sapporo Dome. Shinjo said earlier this year that he would retire at the end of the season.

Game 5 marked the close of popular center fielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo’s 14-year career. Shinjo, who also played for three seasons in the major leagues, announced he would retire earlier in the season. He went 1-for-4 in his final game at Sapporo Dome, tears in his eyes as he struck out during his final at-bat.

“Shinjo’s a wonderful man, and it’s sad he’s retiring,” Hillman said. “He’s put a lot of energy into this dome. What a wonderful sendoff, leaving as a champion.”

Inaba said that Shinjo was foremost in his mind throughout the postseason.

“He is truly a player who has left us with a lot of memories,” he said. “When he took the field in the ninth, I saw he was still crying. It moved me, too.”

Darvish (1-1) let Chunichi score first, allowing Kazuyoshi Tatsunami to score from third base on Masahiro Araki’s bases-loaded infield single, but the Fighters had no plans of letting Chunichi take the Japan Series back to Nagoya.

Nippon Ham bailed out Darvish in the fifth, with Makoto Kaneko squeezing in Naoto Inada. Kaneko concealed his bunt so long he fell over leaning into the pitch, but by then, Inada was more than halfway to tying the game.

An inning later, Seguignol completed the turnaround, taking Kawakami for a ride over the right-field fence and scoring Kensuke Tanaka.

Kawakami (1-1) left after the sixth, checking out with six hits, two walks and three earned runs allowed. Kawakami struck out four, falling short of his eight-inning effort that led Chunichi to victory in the series opener.

Darvish sunk his teeth in after the fourth, stranding a full boat of runners in the frame, and putting only two more men on base before checking out in the eighth inning.

Darvish, Nippon Ham’s ace in only his second season, struck out six while walking three and giving up eight hits.

The Iranian-Japanese Darvish hit 153 kph on the radar gun against Kosuke Fukudome in the third inning, a new career high.

Darvish’s speed wasn’t all that was amped up for the final game.

Seguignol’s homer was his only hit of the night, but the Panamanian got every bit of Kawakami’s pitch, and Seguignol took his time rounding the bases, dancing at times, before slapping high fives at home plate.

Chunichi had two hits in the final five innings, and Tatsunami’s eighth-inning single was negated when Masahiko Morino hit into an inning-ending double play.

Hideki Okajima induced the play, and closer Micheal Nakamura pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning for the fourth consecutive game, spurring Nippon Ham on to its 1,500-beer shower in the postgame party.

In between the lights-out relief was Inaba’s home run.

“We had wonderful pitching, wonderful defense,” Hillman said. “It’s wonderful having my family in town (as we win the Japan Series).”

Fighters left fielder Hichori Morimoto, Seguignol and Darvish were honored for outstanding play in the series, and Kawakami won the fighting spirit award, which goes to the best player on the losing team.

The Pacific League has won four straight Japan Series, with a different team coming out on top each year.

Kensuke Tanaka, who set a Japan Series record with six sacrifice bunts, got to hit in Game 5, going 3-for-4 with a stolen base.

Central League batting champ Fukudome and CL home run and RBI leader Tyrone Woods bowed out quietly Thursday, combining to go 1-for-7 with a walk. Tatsunami and Morino both had multiple hits for Chunichi.

Nippon Ham will represent Japan in the Asia Series, playing at Tokyo Dome against teams from South Korea, Taiwan and China on Nov. 9-13.