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Memory of Japan Series glory lives on for all-time saves leader Iwase

by Jason Coskrey

Moments after becoming Japan’s new all-time saves leader, Hitoki Iwase took a brief trip down memory lane.

On the field for a hero interview after his record 287th save on Thursday, the Chunichi Dragons veteran was asked if there was one save during his career that stood out from the others.

“The Japan Series,” he responded. Asked if he was referring to the perfect game that clinched the 2007 Japan Series, the saves leader replied in the affirmative. “My legs were shaking, that only happened on Opening Day and the Japan Series.”

The irony is, the game Iwase was referring to, the fifth and final game of the ’07 Series, is one that didn’t count toward his record-breaking total, as it came during the postseason. It was also a contest that, had many watching gotten their way, Iwase would not have even entered.

On that particular November night, most fans, commentators and pundits yearned for one more inning from starter Daisuke Yamai, who was spinning a thread that would’ve lived forever in Japanese baseball lore.

Yamai at the time was three outs away from the first perfect game in Japan Series history — the first in Japan period since Hiromi Makihara threw one for the Yomiuri Giants in 1994.

The story seemed more suited for fantasy than reality. Yamai was nothing special that year. He was a good pitcher, but far removed from the top tier in Japan with a 6-4 record and 3.36 ERA. Yet here he was, with a chance to clinch Chunichi’s first title in 53 years with a perfect game against the defending champion Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

Until Dragons manager Hiromitsu Ochiai, who interestingly enough caught the final out of Makihara’s gem in ’94, emerged from the dugout to inform the home plate umpire of a pitching change in the ninth inning with the Dragons leading 1-0.

Shortly after, Iwase was inserted into an absolute pressure cooker. He had a brief moment of levity with catcher Motonobu Tanishige on the mound, then got to work, retiring the first two batters he faced.

That left Eiichi Koyano standing between Iwase and the biggest save of his life.

Iwase began the at-bat with a slider that missed outside. Pitch No. 2, another slider, sailed a bit high for ball two. His third pitch, a 138-km slider that very nearly dropped in right down the middle, flew past Koyano — taking all the way — for strike one. Iwase went back to the slider again and got a swinging strike to even the count.

One strike away from the title, the Dragons in the field prepared to make the series-clinching play if needed, while their teammates on the bench got ready to rush onto the diamond.

Everyone was ready to react, except Iwase. It was his job to get everything started, with what must’ve felt like the weight of the world on his shoulders. Knowing all the while his next pitch could either make history or tie the game and breathe new life into the Fighters.

Iwase dealt, and for the first time in the at-bat, Koyano made contact. Second baseman Masahiro Araki charged into action, fielding the ball near the bag, and made an off-balance throw to Tyrone Woods to clinch the title.

Iwase leapt off the mound in one of the indelible images in Japan Series history, having closed out an improbable combined perfect game to bring the Dragons their long-awaited triumph.

Even after 287 saves — and counting — Iwase regards the moment as his most memorable. It was the moment the hometown boy who spent his entire life in Aichi Prefecture, playing baseball at Nishio Higashi High School and later NTT Tokai before joining the Dragons, made his career whole.

Iwase has had many memorable moments through the years. He set the single-season saves record (46) in 2005, reached 200 career saves in 2009 and gained entry into the elite Meikyukai club with his 250th save in 2010.

He’ll likely also become the first pitcher to reach 300 saves in Japan in the coming weeks.

His most significant save won’t be reflected among any of those milestones. Still, it’s the one the man who has amassed more saves than any other in Japan won’t ever forget.