FUKUOKA – The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks had been waiting for this for years.
Eight seasons of disappointment and heartbreak, all forgotten in the second it took Tadashi Settsu to get strike three past Kazuhiro Wada and officially put the Hawks back on top.
Toshiya Sugiuchi threw seven shutout innings, and the Hawks put enough runs on the board behind him to defeat the Chunichi Dragons 3-0 in Game 7 to capture their first Japan Series title since 2003 on Sunday at Yahoo Dome.
“I’m exhausted,” Hawks manager Koji Akiyama said. “But it was a great series. Chunichi is a great team. We are fortunate to come out on top.”
Softbank won everything that was placed in its path this season. The Hawks captured the interleague title, the Pacific League pennant and PL Climax Series title before winning a back-and-forth Japan Series against Chunichi.
The Hawks flipped the script in the series finale, becoming the only team to win at home. Softbank benefited from a bases-loaded walk in the third inning, catcher Katsuki Yamazaki’s RBI single in the fourth and Seiichi Uchikawa’s run-scoring hit in the seventh.
“It’s good we won the series in Fukuoka before our home fans, and I want to thank all the fans here and the Hawks fans throughout the country,” Akiyama said.
The last time the Hawks were crowned champions they were still under the Daiei umbrella and Akiyama was named the MVP.
Veteran first baseman Hiroki Kokubo took home the honors this time, with the 40-year-old surpassing Akiyama (then 37) to become the oldest MVP in Japan Series history.
“I can’t describe how I feel,” Kokubo said. “I thought I was dreaming out there in the ninth inning.”
Softbank’s Brian Falkenborg and Sugiuchi were named the outstanding players of the series along with Chunichi’s Wada. Dragons pitcher Kazuki Yoshimi won the award for the best player on the losing team.
Sugiuchi, a holdover from the 2003 team, wasn’t as sharp as usual, but the left-hander was still too much for the Dragons. Sugiuchi allowed three hits, struck out eight and walked two.
“It feels like I’ve finally contributed to the team,” Sugiuchi said. “It feels great, I’m relieved.”
Chunichi’s loss spells the end of manager Hiromitsu Ochiai’s tenure with the Dragons. The team informed him in September that he would not be retained after his contract expires this year.
Ochiai had a wildly successful run, winning four Central League pennants and reaching the Japan Series five times in eight years in charge. For all their regular-season triumphs, Ochiai’s teams struggled in the Japan Series, going 1-4 with only their 2007 trip ending in a championship.
Daisuke Yamai, who threw eight innings of a combined perfect game to clinch Chunichi’s 2007 title, got the start but didn’t have nearly that level of success this time around.
Yamai got the hook after two-plus innings and was charged with a run. He allowed three hits and struck out two before running into trouble in the third inning.
Softbank’s Hitoshi Tamura led off the third with a single to center. Yuya Hasegawa followed with a deep double to center that grazed outfielder Yohei Oshima’s glove before hitting the ground.
Yamai then walked Yamazaki to load the bases. That sent Ochiai to the bullpen, but reliever Masato Kobayashi walked Munenori Kawasaki to give the Hawks a 1-0 lead.
Kobayashi got the next batter, Yuichi Honda, to fly out in foul territory before Maximo Nelson came on in relief and retired Uchikawa and Kokubo.
Hawks veteran Nobuhiko Matsunaka drew a walk to lead off the fourth and advanced to second on Nobuhiro Matsuda’s sacrifice bunt. Tamura flew out to center for the first out, and Chunichi walked Hasegawa to get to Yamazaki, a .189 batter in 86 regular season games.
Yamazaki turned the tables on Chunichi with an single to right that was enough to get Matsunaka, bad knees and all, home from second.
“I got the pitch I was looking for,” Yamazaki said. “I gave my all and managed to come up with a hit.”
Uchikawa came to the plate with a runner on second in the fourth and hit an RBI single off Dragons reliever Takuya Asao to make the score 3-0.
“I’m just so pleased I was able to hit it off the best middle reliever in this situation,” Uchikawa said. “I’m happy.”
Softbank isn’t quite done yet, with the Asia Series set for later this month in Taiwan.
“I want to take the team as far as it can go,” Akiyama said. “Right now, we are the best of the 12 teams in Japan.”