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MVP Inaba celebrates 4th Series title

by Kaz Nagatsuka

SAPPORO — In the post-game beer fight, Atsunori Inaba was filled with joy, carrying a big bag filled with booze on his back and spraying it at his teammates.

News photo The Fighters’ Atsunori Inaba raises his fist in the air after hitting a solo home run in Hokkaido Nippon
Ham’s Japan Series-clinching win at Sapporo Dome on Thursday.
KYODO PHOTO

But no matter how much beer he poured into his mouth, he never got drunk. Because it was something he was familiar with.

Inaba personally made his fourth Japan Series appearance and it was the fourth time his side triumphed.

The 34-year-old Inaba jokingly said he may be blessed.

Who can argue with that notion?

Sure, he is fortunate because he has been where a lot of players never get a chance to go: the Japan Series.

But the taste of beer at his fourth Japan Series was a bit different compared to the previous three.

“We had the will to demand victories playing together, and it really boosted me to hit,” said Inaba, who was named the Most Valuable Player in the 2006 Japan Series, which wrapped up on Thursday with a 4-1 Fighters win over the Chunichi Dragons in Game 5 at Sapporo Dome.

Even with the powerful support of the enthusiastic Hokkaido fans, without Inaba the Fighters might not have been able to end Chunichi’s season this quickly.

In Game 3, the memorable first Japan Series game in Hokkaido, Inaba blasted a three-run dinger to secure the 6-1 win. In the next game, he again came through by driving in a two-run double in the fifth inning to put the Fighters ahead 3-0.

And in Thursday’s title-clinching win, the Fighters’ first in 44 years, he bashed a solo homer in the eighth.

“I was so nervous in the playoffs (in the second stage against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks), so I wanted to play better by any means,” said Inaba, who hit .353 (6-for-17) in the Japan Series with two homers and a series-best seven RBIs.

After the 2004 season, when he played for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, Inaba sought to move on to the major leagues. But he was not signed by an MLB team.

So Inaba decided to join Nippon Ham, which had moved to Hokkaido in 2004.

Inaba said he has never forgotten his gratitude to the ballclub that picked him up two years ago, and he gave credit to the team’s youngsters like outfielder Hichori Morimoto and infielder Kensuke Tanaka for stepping up this season.

Inaba said that even after a loss in Game 1 at Nagoya Dome, the Fighters were not down because of their lively young players.

Inaba spent 10 seasons with the Swallows and was lucky enough to win three Japan Series titles.

Clearly, Inaba cherished his time as a Swallow, and has countless fond memories of playing in Sapporo.

“When I was with the Swallows, I was playing on a team led by elder players,” he said. “Taking care of myself was all I could do at that time.

“But now I can play relaxing. The Swallows and Fighter are both friendly ballclubs. But the qualities of the friendliness are not equivalent.

“This Fighters team is a team that embraces you so warmly.”

And isn’t afraid to have a wild beer fight when the time’s right.