TOKOROZAWA, SAITAMA PREF. – The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters claimed their first Pacific League title in three years without even having to suit up for a game on Tuesday, thanks to the Seibu Lions’ 5-3 defeat to the Chiba Lotte Marines.
The idle Fighters, who were in first place with a magic number of one before second-place Seibu’s game on Tuesday, will take a one-win advantage as the pennant title holder into the final stage of the Climax Series against the winner of the first stage between the second- and third-place teams.
Nippon Ham rookie manager Hideki Kuriyama became the first skipper in his first year to win the pennant since Seibu’s Hisanobu Watanabe achieved the feat with the Lions in 2008.
“Hokkaido has become No. 1,” said Kuriyama to a throng of over 10,000 fans gathered at Sapporo Dome to celebrate the pennant victory.
“At the beginning of the season I told the players: ‘Play hard for the sake of your families.’ I gave them a lot of trouble along the way, but they really did a great job. The fans are a part of our family,” he said.
The first stage of the Climax Series begins Oct. 13 while the Fighters will get home field advantage for the final stage starting on Oct. 17 in Sapporo.
Nippon Ham took over first place on Sept. 15, and won the league title even after the departure of ace right-hander Yu Darvish to the Texas Rangers during the 2011 offseason.
Seibu had been pushed to the brink with only one choice to survive — start winning — after a loss to Lotte on Monday night. Instead, the Lions went headlong over the edge and saw their hopes dashed of clinching their first title in four years.
PL batting leader Katsuya Kakunaka put the Marines on the scoreboard with a two-run single in the first inning, and added an RBI single in the seventh. Kei Hosoya led off the fifth with a homer to left-center to break a 2-2 tie.
Another run scored in the sixth when second baseman Hideto Asamura threw wildly to first for an error on a routine grounder.
Asamura, Jose Ortiz and slumping slugger Takeya Nakamura each hit solo blasts for Seibu, but it was not enough in the end.
“If I think about it, over a long span Nippon Ham was a balanced team,” said Watanabe. “They were the best on offense and defense in the Pacific League. They were better than us.”
Taiki Nakago (3-1) pitched two scoreless innings in relief of Lotte starter Shingo Ono, who gave up two runs and five hits in four shaky innings. Lefty veteran Kazuhisa Ishii (10-5) was charged with four runs — three earned — and eight hits in 5 1/3 innings in taking the loss.
Yasuhiko Yabuta closed out the ninth, surrendering the shot to Nakamura, his 26th home run, before getting Yutaro Ozaki to strike out swinging to end the game.
The Lions had the odds against them to begin with, having to win all five remaining games in the regular season while also having the Fighters lose all three of theirs.
Eagles 2, Hawks 0
At Sendai’s Kleenex Stadium, Masahiro Tanaka (9-4) threw his third shutout of the season and walked none as Tohoku Rakuten downed third-place Fukuoka Softbank.
Tanaka allowed six hits and struck out five in a 104-pitch outing. Ryo Hijirisawa had a sacrifice fly off Hiroki Yamada (8-9) in the second inning and Teppei Tsuchiya added a run-scoring double in the eighth.
Swallows 6, BayStars 2
At Yokohama Stadium, Wladimir Balentien hit a two-run drive for his Japanese baseball-leading 31st homer and Tokyo Yakult banged out 10 hits to beat lowly Yokohama.
Masato Nakazawa (2-0) limited the damage to two runs in 5 1/3 innings.
The BayStars lost three in a row and suffered their 80th defeat of the year. Daisuke Miura (9-8) took the loss.