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Contrite Inaba laments his missed opportunities in Japan Series loss

by Kaz Nagatsuka

SAPPORO — For one last time, the entire Sapporo Dome was shaking as the crowd was trying to give energy to the Hokkaido Nippon Fighters with perhaps their most symbolic way of cheering.

But Atsunori Inaba’s tank was almost empty.

He looked on helplessly as a low-outside forkball by Yomiuri’s Marc Kroon gave the closer his third strikeout of the game in the bottom of the ninth inning.

And then, the shaking completely stopped, replaced by deep sighs from the 40,000-plus fans in attendance.

One batter later, cleanup man Shinji Takahashi also struck out for the final out — the last for the whole season as the Giants captured the Japan Series title with a nail-biting 2-0 win in Game 6 on Saturday.

The 37-year-old Inaba soon came out to face reporters after the game. He was feeling responsible for the year-ending loss.

“I couldn’t come up with hits in clutch situations and committed an error that cost a run,” Inaba said, referring to a fielding mistake in the seventh inning that led to the Giants’ second run.

“We took the loss because of me today. That is clear. I’m going to regret that.”

Not just a fine ball player, Inaba is one of the rare stars in Japanese baseball who is always earnest, polite, plays his best and stays loyal to his teammates and fans. That’s what has made him such a beloved presence in Hokkaido since joining the team in 2005.

Inaba was designated Hokkaido Nippon Ham’s captain in January and there was virtually no one who argued against the decision.

But having gone through the 2009 campaign, Inaba said he wasn’t sure if he could live up to his expectations both as a player and captain.

“We spent the season under such a wretched captain like this,” said Inaba, who made the Japan Series three times with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and twice with the Fighters. “Yet I really didn’t have anything to do for the team, and the only thing I could do was talk (to teammates) and in that respect I think I was able to chip in for the club a little bit.

“But I feel responsible for not having been able to toss manager (Masataka) Nashida up in the air in the end.”

Inaba, who played for Japan in last year’s Beijing Olympics and this spring’s World Baseball Classic, played at a high level again, notching a .300 batting average with 17 home runs and 85 RBIs during the regular season to go alongside his stellar defensive performance.

He said, however, that it was a frustrating year because he thinks he could’ve performed better.

“As far as numbers are concerned, you could say so,” Inaba said, when told that he batted .300 or better four years in a row. “But I had days when I didn’t come up with clutch hits. So next year, I’d like to be a player who is trusted by everyone.”

Inaba broke into tears on the podium in the post-game hero interview against the Seibu Lions on May 3, when he hit a 12th-inning walk-off homer at Sapporo Dome.

“I’ve not been able to hit and it was so tough for me,” he said after that game. “The team is heading in the right direction. Our pitchers are great. I was thinking that it would just be me that hasn’t done well.”

Although he did not shed any tears, Inaba, who won the Most Valuable Player award in the 2006 Japan Series, suffered a slump and fatigue from the long season beginning with the WBC in this series too.

He was 5-for-24 (.208) with two homers and two RBIs. The 2007 batting champion was fanned seven times.

In the Japanese version of the Fall Classic, the fans did the famous “Inaba Jump” (a cheer in which the Fighters fans jump up and down in unison) for the three-time All-Star every time there were runners in scoring positions, even more so than in the regular season. But Inaba kept disappointing them. He was 0-for-6 in those situations.

The last game was an extremely bitter pill for Fighters fans, who watched their team leave 13 men on base. Inaba struck out three times — all on called third strikes — with the fans doing the “Inaba jump.”

“The game symbolized my year,” Inaba said of those at-bats. “The fans jumped for me all year and I couldn’t come up with positive results. But still they kept leaping to give me strength and courage”

However, for the highly positive Inaba, the defeat in the Japan Series did not spoil his and his team’s phenomenal journey, not to mention that most analysts didn’t predict Hokkaido Nippon Ham would even make the playoffs before the season started.

“We’ve got to refresh our minds otherwise you can’t climb up to the next step,” he said. “We conquered the Pacific League and should be proud of that. At the same time, we should address the reasons why we lost the Japan Series.”

Finally, Inaba did not forget to thank the fans.

“Though we lost, we were encouraged by the fans to a great degree, and that actually won us the league championship. The new year has already started. We want to do our best after recharging our batteries to aim to be Japan’s best again.”