TOKOROZAWA, SAITAMA PREF. – Reliever Masahiko Morifuku made his first postseason appearance of the year in the ninth inning, with the bases loaded, nobody out, and his team clinging to a two-run lead in Game 1 of the first stage of the Pacific League Climax Series.
Fukuoka Softbank Hawks starter Tadashi Settsu had tamed the Seibu Lions for eight innings, but he was in the dugout with an ice pack on his shoulder now, and the Lions and their fans were finally roaring after having just sent reliever Brian Falkenborg to join him.
A three-game series leaves precious little margin for error, especially for the road team, and the Hawks were perilously close to ceding control of the series to their hosts.
“In a short series, it doesn’t matter if your condition is good or bad,” Morifuku would say later. “It’s about heart.”
All that stood between the Hawks and either a one-game lead or a one-game deficit was diminutive 171-cm, 65-kg Morifuku. With everything riding on his shoulders, Morifuku came through in the biggest moment of the season, recording three quick outs, while allowing a run, to allow the Hawks to escape with a 2-1 victory.
“Perhaps none of us could even swallow during the last part of the game,” Hawks captain Hiroki Kokubo said. “We were in a no-out, bases-loaded situation and could rely on nobody but Morifuku there. It reminded me of the Japan Series.”
That’s right, we’ve seen this before.
The stakes were much higher the last time the Hawks asked Morifuku to wriggle out of a bases-loaded jam in the postseason. He was down 2-1 on the road in a previously listless stadium that had just come to life in that game as well. That was Nov. 16, 2011, in the sixth inning of Game 4 in the Japan Series at Nagoya Dome — not far from Morifuku’s hometown of Toyokawa, Aichi Prefecture — and the Chunichi Dragons were ahead 2-1 in the series.
The left-hander shrugged off the pressure and retired three right-handed batters without allowing a run to preserve the lead in a game the Hawks won 2-1. Softbank would eventually win the series in seven games.
“We were talking about that in the bullpen,” Morifuku said after Saturday’s win. “I didn’t actually think it would really happen. But I guess it did.”
Morifuku wasn’t perfect against Seibu, but he got the job done.
The first batter he faced was pinch hitter Chris Carter, a sparkplug of a player who had delivered in similar situations this season and earlier in the year gave an in-game speech that inspired the Lions so much the team created, and sold out of, shirts to commemorate the occasion. Carter promptly hit a hard grounder that stayed in the infield and drove in a run at the cost of an out. The next batter, Tatsuyuki Uemoto, flew out to short, and Hisashi Takayama flew out to center to end the game.
“Morifuku was composed in the end,” pitching coach Ikuo Takayama said.
If the Hawks close out this series, fend off the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the final stage of the Climax Series, then edge the Central League representative in the Japan Series, Softbank can look back at this game as the moment everything began to come together.
One misplaced pitch, off-balanced throw, botched relay, or any number of things really, could’ve led to a Lions walk-off win. Then instead of having to simply not lose in Game 2 in order to advance, the Hawks would be looking at a pair of must-win games on the road, after having wasted a great start by their best pitcher.
Settsu has dominated the Lions over the better part of the last two seasons, but after 119 pitches over eight scoreless innings, he was running out of gas. Falkenborg was tapped to close things out, but the right-hander has dealt with injures for much of the year and isn’t 100 percent yet — and it showed in the ninth.
“Falkenborg isn’t that bad and his pitches are coming back,” Takayama said. “Settsu hit his limit there,” he added. “I bet it was difficult for him to pitch like that after a layoff of more than 10 days.”
So when the Hawks were in need, they once again turned to Morifuku, who may have saved both the series and the season for his team.
“I’m happier that our team won more than whether or not I did a good job,” Morifuku said. “In this kind of short series, every game is obviously important. So winning is everything. No matter how you do it.”