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Another challenge awaits Rakuten

by Jason Coskrey

Clinching the Pacific League pennant a little early gave the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles a chance to really enjoy the moment.

Ace Masahiro Tanaka, 22-0 this season, was on the mound for the last inning of the PL pennant race on Sept. 26 at Seibu Dome — for once in search of a save rather than a win — and his strikeout of Hideto Asamura, perhaps the best position player in the PL, was a seminal moment for a franchise that began play in 2005 and finished that year 51½ games out of first place.

The Eagles launched into wild celebrations after the final out, while a larger-than-usual contingent of Rakuten fans joined in the revelry at Seibu Dome, as thousands more relished in the triumph hundreds of kilometers away in Sendai and Miyagi Prefecture.

That the triumph came a few weeks before the end of the season allowed the Eagles to really let it sink in, even as they stand at the base of the next summit that will need to be scaled in order to cap off their Cinderella season with a Japan Series title.

Rakuten as much as any recent league champion deserved a chance to really let loose.

A first pennant win, or one that comes after a prolonged period, always puts a team in a slightly unique position.

It’s always accompanied by the type of nostalgia that celebrates the overall journey and hardships overcome as much as the current achievement.

The team came into existence after the merger of the Orix BlueWave and Kintetsu Buffaloes (which created the Orix Buffaloes) and was gifted its first great player in former Kintetsu hurler Hisashi Iwakuma when the team began play in 2005, and drafted the next, Tanaka, in 2006.

Inaugural manager Yasushi Tao lasted all of one year before Japanese baseball great Katsuya Nomura took the reigns.

Despite a double threat on the mound, slugger Takeshi Yamasaki playing out the twilight of his productive years, and Nomura calling the shots, Rakuten endured more seasons that ended closer to the bottom of the standings than the top, the one exception being 2009′s second-place finish in Nomura’s last year in charge.

Current manager Senichi Hoshino, who has now led three franchises to pennants, followed Marty Brown and took over a sixth-place team in 2011 while Iwakuma left for the majors at the end of that season.

That year also saw the team task itself with helping Miyagi Prefecture heal after a devastating earthquake and tsunami, the after-effects of which still reverberate around Japan. Hoshino noted the fighting spirit of the region’s populace as one of Rakuten’s driving forces.

Now, in the year that may well see Tanaka follow Iwakuma to the majors, the Eagles have ridden their ace’s historic year and strong campaigns from rookie hurler Takehiro Norimoto and an improved offense that includes former MLB superstar Andruw Jones, Casey McGehee and Ginji Akaminai and others to a first-ever pennant win.

Rakuten won’t play another meaningful game until the final stage of the PL Climax series begins Oct. 17.

By then the pennant fervor will have to be discarded as the team enters uncharted territory.

They’ve been to the second-stage before, but that, built on the shoulders of Iwakuma and Tanaka, was unburdened by expectation.

Now they’ll be favored, and this time Eagles fans, emboldened by the sudden success, will head to Kleenex Stadium in hopes of watching the team punch its first ticket to the Japan Series, where a strong challenger from the Central League, quite possibly the CL and defending Japan Series champion Yomiuri Giants, awaits.

The Eagles’ first pennant was a long time in the making, and the team was able to celebrate it as such.

Which is good, because there is still one peak left to climb, and the ascent only gets steeper from here.