The Hiroshima Carp lingered in the clubhouse a little longer than usual after their unlikely playoff run skidded to a conclusion.
The team filed out of the locker room almost one at a time — first manager Kenjiro Nomura, then a few of the coaches, and finally a procession of players — down the long hallway, up the stairs, and through the revolving doors.
Out of Tokyo Dome and into the offseason.
Hiroshima’s season ended with a sweep at the hands of the Yomiuri Giants in the Central League Climax Series Final Stage on Friday, but the team hopes that disappointment soon gives way to a prospect of a brighter future.
“We’ve got some young players who were able to develop, and it worked out for our team, starting with (Yoshihiro) Maru, who led us in the beginning, and (Jun) Hirose and (Ryuhei) Matsuyama likewise guided this team later,” Nomura said.
“So although we got swept, we are surely getting better.”
Hiroshima should still have a lot to be proud of despite being swept out of the Climax Series.
“We made a lot of strides,” pitcher Bryan Bullington said. “We played good baseball the whole second half and being able to get to the playoffs for the first time in over 20 years was obviously a huge step for the organization and this whole group of guys.”
The Carp suffered through injuries during a sluggish first half, and looked destined for a B-Class finish for the 17th consecutive season.
Hiroshima surged in the second half, getting an improved offensive performance — a lot of which can be attributed to Maru’s development, Brad Eldred’s return from an injury, and Kila Ka’aihue’s arrival in June — to go along with a potent starting rotation featuring Kenta Maeda, Bullington, Kan Otake, and Yusuke Nomura.
A strong finish got the Carp into the postseason for the first time in 22 seasons, and they pulled off a stunner by going on the road and sweeping the Hanshin Tigers in the first stage.
“You look back to maybe the beginning of August, we were in a tough spot,” Eldred said. “We weren’t sure we could even make the playoffs. We played well that last two months of the season.
“We played everybody tough. It all came together for us. I think it just proves this is a tough team and we’re definitely looking good for the future.”
Making it to the playoffs after such a long absence and giving players their first taste of postseason baseball is something Hiroshima hopes is the foundation for success going forward.
“I think it helps a ton,” Bullington said. “Obviously we got over a huge hump this year. The Carp have kind of had a stigma for a long time of being in the B-Class, or just not being able to get to this point and play with these teams.
“I think we proved to ourselves this year we can, and we can go on the road and win some tough games and play our best when we need to, we did that a lot in the last couple of months. These guys have a lot to be proud of and hopefully we can build on it next year.”
That starts in the offseason, when the Carp will see where they stand with Maeda, who has been watched by MLB scouts (he’d have to be posted in order to move) and the players who are free agents, such as Otake.
For once, however, Hiroshima can promote the fact it’s building toward winning now, instead of simply rebuilding.
“I hope we can carry that through,” closer Kam Mickolio said. “The whole organization is going to be happy and fired up going into next year. That’s just naturally occurring after a playoff run. So it’s a good thing. Coming in, sweeping Hanshin, no one saw that coming.”
Hiroshima’s run into the postseason also fired up an already fervent fan base that supported the team through the lean years, but was yearning for a chance to really let loose.
“I’m not from Hiroshima, but as I came to Hiroshima, I got to know how much this team is beloved by the people in Hiroshima,” Maru said.
Red-clad fans openly wept in Nagoya when the team clinched a spot in the Climax Series and followed the Carp to Osaka and Tokyo in heavy numbers.
“It was unbelievable,” Eldred said of the fan support. “I think just that first series alone, in Koshien Stadium, you could really see the difference. Usually it’s that one little section up in the top corner that the cheering section, but we had the entire left field and trickling down the foul line. And they were loud. They were excited.
“Just being in Hiroshima walking around, you can tell that the fans and just the people in the city were really paying attention to what we were doing, and they were excited. Unfortunately we came up a little short.”
The Carp were competitive in all three games against the Giants, having a chance to tie or take the lead late in all three contests, but couldn’t get over the hump against the defending Japan Series champions.
“The Hiroshima Carp had a great season,” Giants manager Tatsuori Hara said. “Even though we beat them three straight, they should be congratulated.”
Even through the sting of defeat, many of the Carp were able to find a silver lining.
“We ended by being swept, but I don’t think we’re that far behind,” Nomura said. “We gained momentum with a win in the first stage, but we entered the second stage already one game down and lost the first game. That put us behind. But we should be proud we were able to make it here.”