The Yomiuri Giants began the season by falling flat on their faces and languishing in the lower reaches of the standings for the first few weeks of the year.
They battled back from that to win the Central League title, but quickly found themselves on the brink of elimination after the Chunichi Dragons swept into Tokyo Dome and won three straight games to begin the CL Climax Series final stage.
Yomiuri avoided that pitfall and won the first two games of the Japan Series, only to have the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters snatch the momentum with a rout in Game 3 and a grueling one-run, 12-inning victory in Game 4.
The Giants scaled that mountain as well. Each time the situation looked bleak, the Kyojin responded.
On Saturday night they finally reached their goal, beating the Fighters 4-3 to win the 22nd Japan Series title in franchise history.
“We won the pennant on Sept. 21 and I was tossed in the air once again after this game,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said, referring to the doage toss he received after the game. The team threw him into the air 11 times.
“It was quite a long road,” Hara said. “We came into the postseason with a mind set to win seven more games. It was a long, severe road. Every one of the players, coaches, and staff kept faith in this group and fought without any doubts that they would be able to win the championship. So this is such a great victory for us.”
The Giants have beaten the Fighters in six games in each of their three meetings (1982, 2009, ’12) in the Japan Series. Hara hit a home run in Game 6 of the ’82 Series, while pitcher Tetsuya Utsumi earned series-clinching victories in emergency relief in 2009 (after Shun Tono was injured) and as a starter on Saturday.
“This championship is better than the last,” Utsumi said. “I hope there will be many more. It was good to win at Tokyo Dome in front of our home fans.”
The Giants outscored the Fighters 9-1 in the first two games of the series, but moving back home to Sapporo Dome breathed new life into Nippon Ham, and the Pacific League champions seized the momentum with wins in Games 3 and 4. The Giants routed the Fighters in Game 5 before wrapping up the series Saturday.
“We got off to a great start by winning the first two games and that was huge,” Hara said. “We knew it was never going to be easy. I’m not making it up, but we thought the series would be like this. We wanted to take some joy out of the fact we were able to play on this stage, and it worked out for us.”
The Giants took an early lead in the finale, going ahead 2-0 on Kenji Yano’s two-run single in the first inning. Hisayoshi Chono made the score 3-0 in the second with a solo homer.
Nippon Ham rallied back in the sixth, tying the game on Sho Nakata’s three-run home run.
Giants catcher Shinnosuke Abe drove in the final nail with a tie-breaking RBI single in the seventh, and the Giants bullpen made sure the lead held up.
Utsumi was named Japan Series MVP after picking up two wins. Utsumi allowed two runs and struck out 15 over 15 innings during the series.
“I had mediocre outings during the Climax Series, and didn’t deliver wins,” Utsumi said. “The manager kept his faith in me and gave me the chance to start the first game (of the Japan Series). So I entered with my mind set on getting wins for the team.”
Utsumi threw seven scoreless innings in the Giants’ 8-1 win in Game 1 and returned on short rest to throw eight innings of two-run ball in a 10-2 victory in Game 5.
“As far as my body was concerned, I had some fatigue, but the team had enough trust to use me,” Utsumi said. “So I wanted to pay them back, and I’m glad I could.”
Utsumi didn’t bring the title home alone.
John Bowker finished the series with a pair of home runs and seven RBIs; Chono hit .375 with two home runs; Hayato Sakamoto hit .360 with three RBIs; and Tetsuya Matsumoto made a number of highlight-worthy plays in center field and set a Japan Series record with six sacrifice bunts.
“I was impressed that we had a lot of players who entered every game in good condition,” Hara said. “I’ve used so many different players that I suppose they might have been confused sometimes. But they still played and knew their roles. I have so much respect for them.”
Bowker, Abe, and Chono earned Outstanding Player awards for their efforts.
“I feel excited,” Bowker said. “It’s a real honor. To come out on top is a great feeling.”
The Giants have now won two of the last four Japan Series and have no intention of slowing down now.
That’s good, because owner Kojiro Shiraishi has set the bar pretty high.
“When I became the owner, I said we were going to win 10 consecutive championships, which surpasses what was done under manager (Tetsuharu) Kawakami,” Shiraishi joked, referring to the legendary V9 Giants teams that won the Japan Series every year from 1965 to 1973.
“This is only the first, but I would like to achieve that,” he added.
“I know some will think I have a big mouth, but as the owner, I want the team to play with that mind set. Now we’ve won one, and next year will be a new and tough year, but I believe in manager Hara and his team.”