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Swallows made great strides during 2015 season

by

Staff Writer

The Tokyo Yakult Swallows were disappointed to fall short in the Japan Series against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, but weren’t crushed by the defeat.

While it’s possible the disappointment over the way the series ended, with the Hawks winning in five games, may never fade, it also means everything that came before, highs that hadn’t been reached in years, won’t either. First-year manager Mitsuru Manaka understood that, and his players left the clubhouse and headed into the offseason on Thursday night knowing it as well.

“He (Manaka) said, ‘Don’t hang your heads, guys, we had a great year,’ ” said Swallows closer Tony Barnette, who set a franchise record with 41 saves during the regular season. “We had a great year. We won the Central League, we won first place, and we won the Climax Series. We just ran into a buzz saw. The buzz saw called the Softbank Hawks. They’re a good team.

“Nobody is really hanging their head. It’s sad that we didn’t win, but in hindsight, we had a great year. Can’t take anything away from that.”

This season was a complete turnaround from the previous two. The Swallows ended 2013 and 2014 at the bottom of the standings. This one ended with a line of team officials waiting outside the clubhouse to offer their congratulations to each player, coach, trainer and translator for a season well-played.

“Yakult was a tough team that came through a competitive Central League,” Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo said.

The Birds made their presence felt early, beginning the year with a string of 14 consecutive games in which they held opponents to three runs or less, an NPB record. Eventually their pitching came back to earth, but it wasn’t long before the Swallows’ bats warmed up and began to do a lot of the heavy lifting.

While Yakult got contributions from pretty much everyone at some point in the year, Shingo Kawabata, Tetsuto Yamada and Kazuhiro Hatakeyama provided sustained greatness.

Two players from that trio finished first and second in each of the Triple Crown categories in the CL. Kawabata edged Yamada for the batting title; Yamada beat Hatakeyama for the home run crown; and Hatakeyama finished just ahead of Yamada on the RBI list.

Yamada went a step further, hitting .329 with 38 home runs, 100 RBIs and 34 stolen bases to become one of 10 players to produce a “Triple 3” season (at least a .300 average, 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases).

The pitching staff, which had been a problem spot the last two years, was guided by Yuhei Nakamura, who assumed full-time duties after catcher Ryoji Aikawa joined the Yomiuri Giants as a free agent.

“One of the unsung heroes of the season is Nakamura,” Barnette said. “He was back there just about every single night. He handled the pitching staff phenomenally. He and I talked at the beginning of the year, and with Aikawa leaving, I told him, ‘This is your team now, take control and have the confidence to lead us.’ He silently just led us as a pitching staff all year long.”

The improvements helped the Birds stay in the CL race all year despite being without slugger Wladimir Balentien and pitcher Shohei Tateyama for most of the season.

Yakult survived a dogfight late in the year to win the pennant, and dispatched the Yomiuri Giants in the Climax Series final stage to advance to the Japanese Fall Classic.

“We gave it our best shot,” reliever Logan Ondrusek said. “I’m not sure there’s a lot of people outside our organization who thought we would’ve done as well as we did.

“We showed some people that we can play ball. We hung in there the best we could against these guys. They’ve gone back-to-back now, so they’re no slouches. They just out-played us this series.”

The Swallows head into the offseason hoping to return and finish the job next year. There will likely be a few old faces who won’t be back to help (Yuichi Matsumoto, for one, is retiring), and some new faces to replace them.

For this particular group, what they accomplished this season won’t be forgotten by any member of the current roster.

“It’s a special group of guys,” Ondrusek said. “You can put the best team together and finish in last place, or you can put a certain group of guys together and they gel and they mix. You’ve seen it back in the States with certain teams, certain guys come in and all of a sudden something clicks.

“Everyone in there (the Yakult clubhouse) did a good job this year. It took all of us to do what we did.”