FUKUOKA — The Chiba Lotte Marines have achieved a feat nobody had ever done before — advanced to the Japan Series as a third-seeded team.
There were basically two reasons that factored their miraculous run.
The first is their pitching. Ace hurler Yoshihisa Naruse, who won the Most Valuable Player Award of the Pacific League Climax Series, and the relieving corps helped the men in black by a large degree. Putting Naruse’s two-win performance aside, the unsung relievers also deserve their time in the spotlight.
Represented by Tatsuya Uchi, Yoshihiro Ito, Yasuhiko Yabuta and Hiroyuki Kobayashi, the Marines relievers allowed only four runs in 27 1/3 innings combined. That solid performance from the pen gave the club strong support defensively.
On other the side, Chiba Lotte’s offense wasn’t necessarily explosive. But its ability to come through late in the games symbolized the team’s run in this postseason.
In eight Climax Series games, the Marines have scored 13 runs in the first six innings, and 17 after the seventh.
“The wins we’ve got, they were all earned by our effort as a group,” captain Tsuyoshi Nishioka said after Game 6 of the final stage.
Said skipper Norifumi Nishimura: “That we’ve made it all the way to where we are right now is the result of our unity and our players’ heart.
“It’s not just my effort, but the effort of our coaches and players. And more than anything, we want to thank our fans for their support.”
But as tough a competitor as Chiba Lotte proved, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks also choked their own neck.
It was their third attempt at a Japan Series berth after finishing first in the regular season since the three-team playoff system was introduced in 2004.
Just look back on what the Hawks did in the six games. Skipper Koji Akiyama and his coaching staff made so many questionable calls, and as a result the team seemed to be playing differently to how they did in the regular season.
The most convincing example was Game 5, where the Hawks allowed the Marines a 5-2 come-from-behind win.
Akiyama took starting pitcher Kenji Otonari out of the game after the fifth inning, although the lefty was arguably having his best performance of the year, allowing no runs and two hits.
The team sent in Brian Falkenborg, who was usually used in the eighth between Tadashi Settsu and closer Takahiro Mahara during the season, from the sixth. Perhaps because he couldn’t get his usual rhythm as he came out of the bullpen so early, Falkenborg gave up three runs in the seventh.
The Marines went on to take the game and put themselves one win away from the Japan Series.
“There was a long layoff (between the season and playoffs),” Akiyama said after Game 6. “It wasn’t easy for us to tune up.”
Akiyama’s words may be true, but it cannot be the sole reason for the Hawks’ disastrous defeat.
“We gave our best throughout the year to grab the third place, playing as one,” Nishioka said.
Make no mistakes. As much as the Marines were playing as a team, the Hawks were also trying to fight together.
But it seems the lack of experience in their coaching and strategy for playing a short postseason series cost them their first Japan Series berth in seven years.