NAGOYA — It was almost the perfect ending to 53 years of heartbreak.
Chunichi Dragons starter Daisuke Yamai threw eight perfect innings, before being relieved by Hitoki Iwase in the ninth, and the Dragons overcame a strong day from Yu Darvish to win the Japan Series title with a 1-0 victory over the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters on Thursday at Nagoya Dome.
Yamai and Iwase combined to throw a perfect game and Ryosuke Hirata drove in the game’s only run on a sacrifice fly as Chunichi won its first Japan Series title since 1954.
“I was only 11 months old when the Dragons last won the Japan Series,” Chunichi manager Hiromitsu Ochiai said. “So I know how long it has been.”
After going 6-4 during the regular season and starting in his first game of the ’07 post-season, Yamai had one of the greatest performances in Japan Series history.
Seemingly getting stronger after every inning, Yamai struck out six and used just 86 pitches to retire all 24 batters he faced.
With the crowd chanting for Yamai before the ninth, in the hope of a perfect game, Ochiai made the curious decision to send Iwase to the hill to close out the Series. A move that blew Yamai’s chance at a perfect game.
“Yamai pitched a fantastic game,” Ochiai said. “But it was good we got the perfect game from two pitchers, with a great effort from our starter today and another fine performance by Iwase, our closer.”
Norihiro Nakamura earned the Japan Series MVP award after batting .444 in the Series. It was a wild journey to this point for the Dragons veteran who had to pass a tryout at Chunichi’s spring camp before joining the team.
“It’s just the greatest feeling,” Nakamura said. “I had no job in January, but the Dragons gave me a chance, and I am so appreciative to the Chunichi organization. I can’t believe I’m the Japan Series MVP.
“There are so many people to thank; everyone connected with the Dragons, all my teammates and the fans. Thank you so much.”
The Dragons did not toss Ochiai in the traditional “doage” celebration, which entails throwing a championship-winning manager into the air, after winning the Central League Climax Series. That was due to the disappointment of not winning the CL title in the regular season.
But with some fans moved to tears, the Dragons sent their skipper airborne after he captured his first Series title as a manager.
“We are No. 1 in Japan because we won the Climax Series and the Japan Series; I only wish we could have won the league as well,” Ochiai said. “But I’d like to thank our fans for cheering for us all year, and they got a good reward.”
The Fighters did not go quietly but could not come up with the breaks they needed.
Nippon Ham made good contact at the plate but was helpless as seemingly every hit went straight toward a Chunichi player.
“From the standpoint of what happened on the field, they out-pitched us and they out-hit us.” Fighters manager Trey Hillman said. “They threw a perfect game at us. We couldn’t get anything going offensively, but Darvish was great.”
Darvish had a strong outing but the Fighters’ lack of run production sent him home with the loss. The Nippon Ham ace pitched seven innings, giving up a single run on five hits and striking out 11.
The Chunichi win ends the Pacific League’s Japan Series winning streak at four. The Yomiuri Giants were the last CL champion, winning the crown in 2002.
The Dragons’ victory also ends the brilliant five-year run that Hillman, who will take over Major League Baseball’s Kansas City Royals next season, had with Nippon Ham.
Hillman has become a beloved figure on Japan’s northern island after turning a bottom-feeding team into a winner in just five seasons at the helm. He leaves the team with an inter-league title, two PL Climax Series titles, an Asia Series title and last season’s Japan Series championship.
“It’s disappointing that it’s over,” Hillman said. “You want it to last as long as you can. Especially with the guys on our team.”