No tiebreakers needed this year, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks stand alone.
Softbank wrapped up the 2009 interleague crown on Tuesday with three games to spare after Satoru Morimoto’s go-ahead single in the 10th inning against the Chunichi Dragons in a 4-3 victory that clinched the title.
The win gave the Hawks the interleague crown for the second straight year, matching the achievement of the Chiba Lotte Marines, who finished atop the interleague standings in 2005 and 2006.
Softbank won the interleague title over the Hanshin Tigers last season via tiebreaker after the teams finished with identical 15-9 records despite the Tigers winning three of four against the Hawks.
“Everyone fought hard night after night,” manager Koji Akiyama said about the team’s triumph during a hero interview after the game.
It’s the first bit of tangible success this season for Akiyama, in his first year with the club, as the Hawks try to bounce back from a last-place finish in the 2008.
“I’m really relived that we won,” Akiyama said.
A slow start had consigned the team to a fifth-place position in the Pacific League entering the interleague schedule, five games behind the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
After going 16-5-1 during the interleague schedule (through Wednesday), the Hawks went from fighting to stay out of the PL cellar into second-place, one game behind the Fighters.
Hawks fans can give much of the credit in the team’s reversal of fortunes to starting pitchers Toshiya Sugiuchi and Dennis Houlton.
Staff headliner Sugiuchi finished 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA in five starts, and could have conceivably had two additional victories had closer Takahiro Mahara not blown a pair of ninth-inning saves.
Houlton, meanwhile, finished 3-0 with a 1.85 ERA in five games, going 3-0 against the Central League.
The pair made major contributions to the team’s success, giving the Hawks 10 quality starts as they made their way up the interleague and PL standings. Fukuoka went 8-1-1 in games started by Sugiuchi or Houlton, the tie and loss both the result of blown saves.
Jose Ortiz and Hidenori Tanoue showed their worth at the plate, each contributing a team-high five home runs during the interleague schedule. Ortiz batted .296 and finished with 20 RBIs, while Tanoue finished with a .295 average and drove in 17 runs.
Nobuhiko Matsunaka led the team with a .315 batting average but was limited to one home run and just nine RBIs.
The next step for the Hawks will be turning interleague success into regular season success. The Hawks finished last in the league after finishing in this position last season.
Two seasons ago, the Fighters used a similarly successful interleague season to help propel them to the PL pennant. Now the Hawks are hoping to do the same.
“We’re going to keep fighting one game at a time,” Akiyama said.