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Hawks turn misery into redemption

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Throughout the Climax Series final stage, Fukuoka Softbank Hawks manager Koji Akiyama maintained a blunt attitude when asked how he would compare this year’s team with last year’s squad, saying, “last year was last year. This year is this year.”

It wasn’t necessarily a bluff. Indeed, the team, which swept the Seibu Lions to clinch a place in the Japan Series on Saturday after missing out last year, is different in 2011.

First off, Softbank added newcomers Seiichi Uchikawa and Toru Hosokawa to the squad through free agency. Those fresh faces weren’t a part of the team’s recent miserable postseason history, and brought a breath of fresh air to the Kyushu club.

“This year, we have Uchi (Uchikawa) and Hosokawa, and also (Alex) Cabrera (though he joined the team last year),” said Nobuhiko Matsunaka, who hit a game-clinching grand slam in the eighth inning of Game 2 on Friday. “That we have those three is so huge.”

There is no doubt the acquisition of Uchikawa from the Yokohama BayStars was a particularly good move for Softbank.

The 29-year-old showed his ability from the start in his new surroundings and won his second batting title (.338). But Uchikawa also had a positive psychological influence on the team.

“You often tend to become passive in a short playoff series,” said Nobuhiro Matsuda, who belted the go-ahead solo homer in the sixth in Game 2. “Uchikawa taught me the mind-set to go aggressively into the playoffs. You can’t change your technique quickly, but it’s about your mind-set to make a difference.”

In the 2010 PLCS final stage against the Chiba Lotte Marines, Softbank was one win away from reaching its first Japan Series in seven years, but ended up letting the opportunity slip away as it dropped the final three games in Fukuoka.

The Hawks had played in six of the previous seven postseasons before this year, yet every time they underperformed and came up short of making the Japanese Fall Classic.

The Hawks won the pennant last year, too, and one of the reasons they failed was said to be that the long layoff between the regular season and the final stage made them lose their knack for batting, since they had a bye in the first stage.

But the Hawks turned that bitter experience into a lesson in 2011. Akiyama dispatched the team to the Phoenix League in Miyazaki, which is usually reserved for farm players, before the final stage so the batters wouldn’t lose their feeling for hitting live pitches.

“I think last year is last year and this year is this year, too,” veteran Hiroki Kokubo said on Saturday. “But we batters went to the Phoenix League and were able to keep our rhythm from the regular season. So we weren’t as bad as last year.”

Akiyama, however, was brusque until the end. He doesn’t think the team did anything special to prepare for the postseason play — he just thinks the team has played the same way it has since the beginning of the year.

“We started the year with the goal to win the Japan Series championship,” he said. “We just kept the momentum into the series. We won’t change the attitude at all to go for the top place in Japanese baseball.”