SAPPORO – The Fighters simply preserved their momentum from the previous days, and the reigning Japan Series champion Hawks had no clue how to bounce back.
The Nippon Ham offense came through early behind starter Brian Wolfe’s solid performance as the Fighters defeated the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks 4-2 in Game 3 of the Pacific League Climax Series final stage on Friday night.
The Fighters, who entered the series with the automatic one-win advantage for winning the regular-season title, swept Softbank to clinch their first Japan Series berth in three years.
“I’ve heavily relied on all the players throughout the season,” the Fighters’ first-year manager, Hideki Kuriyama, said after the game. “But it was all meant for getting to the top. Now we’re heading into the Japan Series and I’m getting more nervous.”
Wolfe showed no signs of inconsistency from the beginning and kept the Hawks offense off-balance. He allowed three hits and a run in 6 1/3 innings.
At one point, Wolfe retired 12 straight batters.
Nippon Ham was again quick to get on the scoreboard. In the first inning, cleanup hitter Sho Nakata drove in a run with a two-out double off Hawks starter Tadashi Settsu.
“I was only focusing on swinging hard, and it did work,” Nakata said.
And in the next moment, an accident befell Settsu, who led the league with 17 wins in the regular season and was the club’s most dependable hurler. He injured his right ankle while trotting to cover first base on an Atsunori Inaba grounder to first.
After treatment in the dugout, Settsu returned to the mound. But he gave up an RBI hit to Eiichi Koyano, before he was replaced by reliever Yoshiaki Fujioka.
“I didn’t lose my concentration at all (during the treatment delay for Settsu),” Koyano said. “It felt good I could hit on the chance.”
Settsu, a right-handed pitcher, tossed only 23 pitches.
Micah Hoffpauir’s RBI single gave the Fighters their third run of the inning.
The Hawks were struck by more misfortune in the fourth. Second baseman Yuichi Honda hit his head on the wall in first-base foul territory while making a scoop catch of a flyball. He was also taken out of the game.
Fujioka would not yield additional scores to the Fighters. But the Hawks offense was silenced by Wolfe, who kept making the opponent hit ground ball after ground ball with his two-seam fastball.
The Fighters firmly sealed the win by adding another run on a throwing error by Hawks captain Hiroki Kokubo.
Softbank finally scored when slugger Wily Mo Pena belted a solo homer, and added another score on a grounder in the eighth. But it was too little, too late.
Veteran Inaba went 3-for-4 and Nakata had two hits for the Fighters, while Uchikawa had a pair of doubles for Softbank.
Closer Hisashi Takeda worked in the ninth inning. He retired Kokubo, who played the last game of his 19-year career, for the final out.
Yoshio Itoi, who had two homers in the series, was selected the MVP of the final stage, and Takeda, who had three saves, was honored with an outstanding award for his contributions.
After the game Kokubo broke into tears as he walked to the outfield to bow to the Hawks fans. He got a “doage” (victory) toss by both teams.
“The series ended so quickly,” Kokubo, 41, said. “But I really appreciated the Fighters came out to give the doage.”