For 29 years, diehard Hanshin Tigers fans have waited for the club add to its lone Japan Series title, won in 1985, and for a while it looked like 2014 might mark the end of the drought.
Hanshin had failed to claim the Central League pennant but opened the postseason by winning six out of seven games — the lone non-victory being a tie — to take an early lead in the Japan Series.
Then the wheels fell off.
The Tigers lost four straight close games and saw the title finally slip away on a ruling of runner’s interference against Tsuyoshi Nishioka, as the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks took the crown. Fans of both teams have debated that call (which, incidentally, looked like the right, though rarely made, one) in the days since an entertaining series produced a clunker of an ending.
Not that any of that counts for much now. The Hawks are champions, and the Tigers have an October disappointment to add to Japan Series defeats in 2003 and 2005, as well as 2011’s unceremonious exit from the Central League Climax Series First Stage.
“The ultimate goal was to win the championship,” outfielder Matt Murton said after Game 5 of this year’s Japanese Fall Classic.
But the Tigers came up short, and now they have to regroup. Though that could take some time after one of the most frustrating finishes many of them have experienced.
The Tigers had led the series 1-0 entering Game 2 at Koshien Stadium. They lost that contest and were then beaten in Game 3 in Fukuoka. Facing a 2-1 deficit, Hanshin’s focus shifted to winning one of the next two in order to take the momentum, and the series, back home.
All they took from Fukuoka, however, were the memories of two heartbreaking defeats.
“I wanted to get it back to Koshien again,” Tigers manager Yutaka Wada said. “Softbank was just too strong.”
Hanshin lost Game 4 on Akira Nakamura’s sayonara three-run homer in the 10th, and lost in even more excruciating circumstances in Game 5.
The Tigers were down a run and facing their final two outs of the season when Nishioka strode to the plate in the ninth with the bases full of Hanshin players. A well-hit ball to the outfield would’ve tied the game, and the Tigers might’ve taken the lead on a base knock.
Instead, Nishioka hit a grounder to first that Kenji Akashi fielded and rifled back home for the second out of the inning. Things got hairy when catcher Toru Hosokawa threw back to first in an attempt to complete the double play. The Tigers thought they were still alive when the ball squirted past Akashi at first as Nishioka crossed the bag. But Nishioka was called out for interference, having run slightly outside the lane, to the infield side, ending the game and the series.
“Just very disappointing to have it finish the way it did,” Murton said, summing up his feelings in the immediate aftermath. “It is what it is. The Hawks had a tremendous year. You can’t take anything away from them. They played really well throughout the entire series.
“It was a dogfight. It was going to be very difficult for us to come back in that series, but I believed, and I know our team did, that we still had an opportunity.”
The goal for the Tigers when they reconvene in February will be to win the CL pennant and ultimately the Japan Series, no different than any other season.
Despite their disappointment at this defeat, there are positives to take into 2015, when the club will celebrate its 80-year anniversary.
For starters, Randy Messenger, the CL leader in wins (13), strikeouts (226), innings pitched (208⅓) and strikeout rate (9.76) should be back and probably joined by CL batting champion Murton (.338) and RBI leader Mauro Gomez (109).
Pitcher Shintaro Fujinami will be a year further along in his development, and left-hander Atsushi Nomi should be a prime candidate for a rebound campaign after a down year in 2013.
The Tigers are also rumored to be among the teams in the hunt for the services of Chiba Lotte Marines lefty Yoshihisa Naruse, who last week announced his intention to exercise his free-agency option. The club has also been linked to former Seibu Lions shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima, who could become a replacement for Takashi Toritani, an on-base machine who could pursue a career in the majors next season.
The Tigers fell short in frustrating fashion this year, but after they get over the disappointment, it’s a good bet the team will be hungry for another chance to finish the job.
“Of course,” Messenger said about trying to make it back in 2015. “That’s what you play for. You don’t play to lose. You play to win.”