/

High-flying Eagles reign supreme after eight-year rise to top

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

To say simply that Senichi Hoshino put Masahiro Tanaka in the game during the ninth inning of the Japan Series finale somehow does the moment a disservice.

Hoshino didn’t so much insert Tanaka into the game as force him in.

Eyes full of fire and brimstone while three outs away from the biggest win of his long managerial career, Hoshino (who later said Tanaka had to convince him to get in the game) screamed at the home-plate umpire, despite only a few centimeters separating the two, as he made his final pitching change.

“Tanaka!”

And so the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles finished their greatest season with the biggest star the club has ever produced striking out the Yomiuri Giants’ Kenji Yano to secure the team’s first-ever Japan Series title.

“When Tanaka fanned the last batter, I felt like it was finally over, and that we’d won the Japan Series,” said shortstop Kazuo Matsui, who got his first title after coming up short three times with the Seibu Lions and once in the World Series with the Colorado Rockies.

Rakuten defied most preseason predictions, riding a solid pitching staff and an improved offense to the Pacific League pennant. The Eagles then moved past the Chiba Lotte Marines in the Climax Series.

That set up a matchup against Hoshino’s eternal rivals, the Yomiuri Giants, who as usual were full of stars and came in as reigning Japan Series champions.

“For sure, if it didn’t come against the Giants, we might not have been quite as pleased,” Hoshino said. “As I always say, when I became a pro, the Giants were in their V-9 era, and they taught me both joy and frustration.

“Our players are even more proud because this came against the Giants.”

After beating Yomiuri in Game 5 at Tokyo Dome, Hoshino promised the fans in Sendai that they would see him tossed in the air during a victory doage. He kept his word, and the Eagles tossed the 66-year-old into the air nine times to celebrate their triumph.

“I was thinking, ‘how many times are they going to throw me into the air,’ ” Hoshino said. I was like, ‘put me down now.’ But it felt great.”

The Japan Series played out like the ultimate underdog story, with mighty Yomiuri and all its history and 22 titles against an upstart that even didn’t exist a decade ago.

Rakuten began play as an expansion team in 2005, when the merger of the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes and Orix BlueWave led to the creation of the current Orix Buffaloes franchise, and left the PL in need of a sixth team.

The Eagles struggled mightily in their early years, finishing 51½ games out of first-place in their maiden season, but eventually reached the postseason, getting all the way to the PL Climax Series Final Stage, in 2009, their final season under the club’s second manager Katsuya Nomura.

That was followed by a lean year under manager Marty Brown, which led to Hoshino’s hiring in 2011, with the new manager leading the team to a fifth-place finish in his first season and a fourth-place finish in 2012.

This year Rakuten added key pieces in draft pick Takahiro Norimoto and free-agent signings Andruw Jones and Casey McGehee. Those players meshed with an existing core that included Tanaka, Matsui, Motohiro Shima, and upstarts like Kazuya Fujita and Ginji Akaminai, to help form the crux of the franchise’s first championship team.

The team followed Tanaka’s lead as the 25-year-old went 24-0 during the regular season. Norimoto pitched in with a 15-5 rookie campaign, while Akaminai, Jones and McGehee gave the Eagles the offensive punch they’d lacked for years.

Jones had a home run and five RBIs during the series and Fujita drove in four runs. Akaminai finished with five RBIs and jokingly said he was hoping to win the MVP award.

“I was looking for it to be honest with you,” he said.

That honor went to Manabu Mima, a right-handed pitcher who rarely received the attention Norimoto and Tanaka garnered.

“Well, I guess that’s alright,” Akiminai sighed.

Mima was more than alright during the series, he was great. He made two starts against the Kyojin and threw 11⅔ scoreless innings in a pair of victories.

“Mima had been great since the Climax Series, so we had high hopes for him,” Hoshino said.

Norimoto made three appearances in the series, starting Game 2 and coming on in relief during Games 5 and 7.

“I would like to tell my family about this,” Norimoto said afterward.

Tanaka returned to the mound on Sunday, after a Herculean 160-pitch outing in a loss the night before, to get three outs for a series-clinching save.

“I took the loss yesterday, and so many people were worried about me,” Tanaka said. “But I had another shot, and I wanted to avenge myself and do a better job this time.”

Popular opinion was that after the seemingly unbeatable Tanaka lost for the first time in more than a year in Game 6, that Yomiuri was on the fast track to the title.

But if there was any pressure on Rakuten, Hoshino didn’t let it show.

The veteran skipper cracked jokes during batting practice, and sent the team out with a simple message just before the biggest game of most of their lives.

“During our pregame meeting, I told the guys to make me shed tears of joy at the end,” Hoshino said. “I just told them that.”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.