FUKUOKA – On the podium after winning the Japan Series, standing before over 35,000 screaming Fukuoka Softbank Hawks fans, Seiichi Uchikawa dispelled one of the popular narratives of the Hawks’ push for the title.
The Hawks had been sad to hear (before the postseason) that manager Koji Akiyama was leaving, but Thursday night’s series-clinching 1-0 victory over the Hanshin Tigers wasn’t just about Akiyama. It was about the work the team put in last year during fall camp, and this year in spring training and throughout the season. The Hawks were happy to send Akiyama out on top, but just as pleased to have gotten there for themselves.
“Everybody was saying we were playing to give him the best way to leave,” Uchikawa began, “we’ve been playing since our camp to win this Japan Series title and we didn’t think about our manager until it was over.”
Softbank lost Game 1 on the road at Koshien Stadium then won on four consecutive nights — never trailing at any point during that span — to close out the series.
“This is a great bunch of players we have, on the top team and even on the ni-gun,” Akiyama said. “They deserve to be number one.”
Unlike the mass exodus that followed Softbank’s 2011 Japan Series title — which saw the departure of the team’s top three starters and shortstop Munenori Kawasaki — the Hawks’ core members should remain mostly intact this time.
So the pressure to win now will be there from the start for whomever fills Akiyama’s seat next season. Most rumors have former Hawks pitcher Kimiyasu Kudo pegged as his successor.
The current managerial uncertainty clouds the future a bit (and Kudo has no experience), but regardless of who takes over, he’ll have a lot to live up to, inheriting a team many will expect to keep soaring.
The heat was similarly on Akiyama this year, and while the Hawks weren’t quite as dynamic as expected, they made good on the myriad of preseason predictions that said they’d win the Pacific League and reach the Japan Series.
Everything won, however, was by the slimmest of margins.
The PL was a two-horse race, with the Hawks and the surprising Orix Buffaloes trading blows at the top. Softbank beat Orix on a sayonara single by Nobuhiro Matsuda to clinch the pennant in its final regular-season game.
Then it was time to tangle with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the final stage of the PL Climax Series, with Softbank having to win the decisive sixth game to reach the Japan Series.
Those close calls may have helped prepare the club for the Japan Series pressure cooker. It’s a good thing too, since, with the exception of the Tigers’ 6-2 win in Game 1, every game came down to a few big moments that almost all went Softbank’s way.
“They’re a good team,” said Tom O’Malley, one of Hanshin’s hitting coaches. “They’ve got a lot of good arms. They don’t have a lot of weaknesses, that’s for sure. The better team won. That’s it. That’s the way we gotta look at it.”
In Game 2, Shota Takeda threw 5 2/3 perfect innings and later protected a one-run lead in the sixth and seventh to deliver the ball to the Fukuoka bullpen. Hanshin got runners to second against relievers Ryota Igarashi and Dennis Sarfate in the eighth and ninth, but the clutch hit the Tigers sought never came as Softbank avoided a 2-0 hole in the series.
“We started on the road at Koshien, but Takeda gave us some good pitching in Game 2,” Akiyama said. “I think it was big to come back to Fukuoka 1-1.”
Softbank led 2-0 with runners on the corners and two outs in the sixth in Game 3, when Uchikawa hit a grounder to Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and the third baseman threw the ball to second, to force out the speedy Kenji Akashi, rather than go to first. That proved to be a costly error. Akashi beat the throw, the run scored, and the next batter, Lee Dae-ho, drove in two more as a two-run lead ballooned to a five in the blink of an eye.
In Game 4, Hanshin catcher Akihito Fujii tried to throw Akashi out, instead of going to first, on a sacrifice bunt attempt with one out in the 10th inning of a game tied at 2-2. Akashi beat the throw, and a few batters later Akira Nakamura, who may not have otherwise gotten a chance, hit a two-out sayonara three-run homer.
The finale went down to the wire as well, turning on an eighth-inning RBI single by Matsuda, and ending on a bases-loaded double play that was aided by a call of interference on Nishioka for running outside the lane at first base.
Softbank was challenged all the way to the pennant then showed its strength and resolve by overcoming everything the Fighters and Tigers threw at them.
Akiyama is stepping away, but the cast of characters — Uchikawa, Matsuda, brilliant lead-off man Yuki Yanagita, pitcher Kenji Otonari and others — should largely remain the same. So it won’t be too surprising if the newly crowned Japan Series champions are in position to do it again next year no matter who is in the dugout.