NAGOYA — Norifumi Nishimura and the Chiba Lotte Marines have come full circle.
At this time last season, the Marines were lamenting a season lost to controversy and infighting. The club had just forced out popular manager Bobby Valentine and inserted the affable, yet inexperienced Nishimura in his place.
What a difference a year can make.
After a grueling Japan Series against the Chunichi Dragons that featured three of the longest games in the history of the Japanese Fall Classic, the Marines are on top of the mountain again and champions for the first time since 2005.
“I believed in our players from the start,” Nishimura said. “We were united as one based on our slogan of wa (harmony). That power was huge.”
Nishimura brought the team together in the spring, rallying the players around the concept of team unity. The first-year skipper got every member of the team to pull his weight and believe the sum was more important than the parts.
When asked what the team’s strength was, there was no hesitation from second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, who previously won a pair of titles with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks and one each with the Chicago White Sox and Philadelphia Phillies.
“Like everyone else said, I think it’s wa,” Iguchi said. “When I couldn’t hit, Saburo (Omura) covered for me. We had a different hero depending on the day.”
The Marines needed every one of them during the Japan Series, when some of the usual suspects went missing. Shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka finished the series hitting .167, while catcher Tomoya Satozaki hit just .154.
“I gave the team some trouble,” Nishioka said. “So did Satozaki. Everyone did. But we were able to cover for each other by uniting as one. That led to this championship.”
With two of the club’s biggest stars struggling, Lotte’s unsung players stepped up in their place to keep the team on track in their quest for the title.
Rookie Ikuhiro Kiyota hit .333 with six RBIs. Former ikusei (developmental) player Yoshifumi Okada hit .320 during the series and drove in a pair of runs during the finale, including the go-ahead run in the 12th.
Reliever Tatsuya Uchi had a productive series, tossing nine scoreless innings, including striking out seven in three innings in the finale. Yasuhiko Yabuta had a good showing out of the bullpen as well.
Under Nishimura’s guidance the team rebounded from a midseason slump to reach the Pacific League Climax Series on the final day of the season. In the postseason, the Marines used a 8-3-1 road record to win a title no one saw coming just a year ago.
“We had been playing games we couldn’t afford to lose for awhile,” Nishimura said. “I give the credit to our players. It was a result of our becoming one.”
They saved their most improbable performance for a Japan Series that went down to the wire and nearly required an extra game.
The teams alternated wins through the first five games of the series, which happened for only the second time in Japan Series history.
Leading the series 3-2, Lotte was dominated by Dragons ace Chen Wei-yin for the first seven innings of Game 6, until Omura erased a 2-1 deficit with an RBI single in the eighth. Each bullpen held serve from there, resulting in a 15-inning, 2-2 tie, the longest game in Japan Series history at 5 hours and 43 minutes.
The Marines trailed 6-2 at one point in Game 7 before rallying to take a 7-6 lead. Closer Hiroyuki Kobayashi then gave up the tying run in the ninth.
Facing Takuya Asao, one of the best setup men in the NPB this year, with a runner on second, Okada hit the aforementioned triple that put Lotte on top to stay.
“This team is the No. 1 team in the nation now,” Nishioka said “This championship is what we had been aiming for.”
Nishimura reveled in it all afterward, soaking up the scene in a new Japan Series winner’s T-shirt that he treated like a new treasure.
“We became Climax Series champions earlier and now we are the champions of Japan,” Nishimura said. “This is so precious.”
Uchikawa eyes move
Yokohama BayStars infielder Seiichi Uchikawa, who has qualified for domestic free agency, moved to exercise his right with the hopes of moving to another club on Monday.
Monday marked the start of the application period for free agents allowing Uchikawa, who has eight years worth of service with the top team, to declare his intentions for the first time.
A total of 95 players have become eligible for free agency.
“I want to play for a team that can show me it has a first-rate playing environment,” said Uchikawa.
Yokohama is believed to have offered him a four-year deal to remain with the BayStars, who finished last for the third year in a row.
“I’m interested to see how teams evaluate my style. I would need a significant amount of courage and determination if I declare free agency, but decide to stay.”
Seibu Lions catcher Toru Hosokawa also filed for domestic free agency and is considering leaving his club.
Lotte Marines closer Hiroyuki Kobayashi, who wants to test the free agent waters overseas this winter with an eye on plying his trade in the major leagues, will hold talks with his club Wednesday.
“Right now, I am thinking it over. We’ll see after talks on Wednesday,” said Kobayashi, whose club won the Japan Series against the Chunichi Dragons a day earlier.
Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters right-hander Yoshinori Tateyama, who also qualified for overseas free agency, has sent a letter of intent to the Japanese baseball commissioner’s office.
BayStars infielder Shuichi Murata, Hiroshima Carp catcher Yoshiyuki Ishihara and Orix Buffaloes infielder Mitsutaka Goto are eligible for domestic free agency.
Those who wish to file for free agency must notify their clubs within seven business days following the Japan Series. The deadline this year is Nov. 16.