For a few precious hours, the rigors of a demanding season were forgotten as the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks sprayed one another with bottle after bottle of beer.
Outfielder Seiichi Uchikawa doused a reporter as he was being interviewed, a group of players emptied the contents of several bottles onto team owner Masayoshi Son, and manager Koji Akiyama let his hair down, armed with a beer in each hand and goggles on his face.
Even amid their revelry — and what a party it was, with the Hawks reportedly going through 3,000 bottles in about 20 minutes — they understood the job was only half done.
“We’re not satisfied,” shortstop Munenori Kawasaki said.
For all their regular-season success, the Hawks’ last Japan Series trip came in 2003.
Having wrapped up the PL title on Saturday, Softbank has topped the regular-season standings four times since 2003, also winning a pair of interleague titles, but known only heartbreak in the postseason.
“It was just one of the things as a team we set out to accomplish this year, winning the league,” reliever Brian Falkenborg said. “But that was just the first of our goals. We still have a very bad taste in our mouths from last year, when we got first place and got beat at our place and weren’t able to go to the Japan Series.”
The PL used the climax series format to determine the league’s Series representative since 2004. This year will mark Softbank’s seventh trip to the climax series.
The Hawks have entered the playoffs as the regular-season champions on three occasions (2004, 2005, 2010). As the pennant winner, Softbank hosted the final stage of the climax series in those seasons, losing each time.
The 2010 loss to the Chiba Lotte Marines, was particularly tough to swallow, given the Hawks entered the series with a one-game advantage and their pitching lined up against a Marines squad had to use its ace to escape the first stage.
“I think we have build on it,” pitcher D.J. Houlton said. “We remember what we did. We’re all ready for it. We know what it’s like, the situation, the atmosphere. So we’re used to it. We did it last year. This year, we just need to get healthy and we’ll be alright.”
As the third-place team in 2006, the Hawks reached the final stage of the climax series where they lost to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. Third-place finishes in 2007 and 2009 ended in first-stage exits.
“I know the guys on this team won’t be satisfied unless we win in the playoffs and get to the Japan Series and ultimately win that,” Falkenborg said.
Son says this year’s team is special, and so far he’s been right.
They were challenged by the Fighters for most of the season, but sprinted to the finish as the Fighters faded away with the summer. Softbank clinched the title with Nippon Ham a distant second, 13 games back.
“From the start of the year, we didn’t think there would be any problems for the other teams,” Akiyama said. “So we just tried to play hard one game at a time.”
Clinching early doesn’t come without challenges, namely trying to stay healthy and motivated.
“We still have games to play,” third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda said. “We want to end on a positive note.”
The team will finish the season on Oct. 16 and will try to stay sharp in Phoenix League games, but the Hawks won’t play another meaningful game until Nov. 3, when the final stage of the climax series begins.
“I want to be ready to throw at 100 percent,” said pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada.
Softbank partied into the night after winning the PL title. As sweet as it was, they all know it won’t compare to the celebration they want to have in November.