Hanshin. Hanshin. Hanshin. That’s all we’ve been hearing during most of the 2003 Japan pro baseball season.
The Tigers will likely be going to the Japan Series come October but, while that team limps its way through its “Shi no rodo” (“Road trip of death,” when Hanshin plays away from home for more than two weeks while the country’s annual national high school tournament takes place at Koshien Stadium), let’s take a look at another club also headed for postseason play; one that will give the potential Central League champions a run for their money beginning Oct. 18.
It’s the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, the front-runner in the Pacific League who have built up a five-game lead and posted a magic number of 30 for clinching their third pennant in five years.
Manager Sadaharu Oh has done a remarkable job in guiding the Hawks, considering one of his leading hitters, third baseman Hiroki Kokubo (.292, 32 HR, 89 RBI last season), has been out all year with a knee injury.
Fukuoka also lost one of its top pitchers, Kenichi Wakatabe (10-8, 2.99 ERA in 2002), to the Yokohama BayStars via free agency, but young players have stepped in to pick up the slack.
The FDH mound staff composite earned run average stood at 3.58 as of Aug. 18, and the team batting average was a fantastic .303. Both are league-leading figures by a wide margin.
Check out the stats of Daiei’s “cleanup trio” batters: Hitting third, second baseman Tadahito Iguchi has a .349 average with 21 homers and 79 runs batted in. Batting fourth, first baseman-DH Nobuhiko Matsunaka has hit 19 homers and has 79 RBIs with a .321 average. Catcher Kenji Jojima, the likely MVP assuming the Hawks win, leads the PL, including sluggers Alex Cabrera and Tuffy Rhodes, with 93 RBIs.
Jojima’s also slammed 25 homers and has a .347 average. Center-fielder and leadoff man Akihito Muramatsu is also in the top 10 in league batting with a .322 average and has 55 RBIs and 31 stolen bases.
The numbers of Puerto Rican left-fielder Pedro Valdes are .303, 17, 68. Youngster Munenori Kawasaki, filling in defensively for Kokubo at third, is batting .299 and has 21 steals as the second batter in Oh’s lineup. Julio Zuleta, from Panama, joined in mid-season and has hit nine homers with 30 RBIs while batting .288, alternating with Matsunaka as the first baseman and DH.
This explosive offense dealt the Orix BlueWave two of the most humiliating defeats in the history of Japanese baseball, winning 26-7 on July 27 at Fukuoka Dome and 29-1 on Aug. 1 at Yahoo BB Stadium in Kobe.
In the July 27 game, Daiei scored 11 runs in the first inning, belted out a total of 32 hits and set a PL record for the most runs scored in a game. Six days later, the Hawks broke that record, scoring 23 runs in the first three innings en route to the 28-run margin victory.
The potent attack left a host of fours, fives, sixes and sevens under the at bats, runs, hits and RBI columns in the Hawks box scores.
Jojima had six hits, two three-run homers and seven RBIs in the 26-7 game. Zuleta led the Hawks in the 29-1 spectacle with three homers; a pair of two-run jobs and a three-run smash, good for seven RBIs.
The pitching staff ain’t bad, either.
The leader, right-hander Kazumi Saito, was 16-2 through games of Aug. 18, riding a 14-game winning streak. He was second in the Pacific League in ERA at 2.49 and is poised to be the first 20-game winner in the PL since 1985.
Can you believe that?
Rookie southpaw Tsuyoshi Wada is 12-3 with a 2.95 ERA, and another freshman, right-hander Nagisa Arakaki, was 8-7 with a 3.34 ERA prior to being sidelined with an injury.
Sophomore lefty Toshiya Sugiuchi is only 5-7 but has a 3.17 ERA and struck out 14 Chiba Lotte Marines batters in a 4-1 win at Fukuoka Dome on Aug. 12.
American righty Brandon Knight is also in the starting rotation. Though pitching with discomfort with bone chips in his throwing elbow, Knight beat the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes 7-3 on Aug. 16 at Osaka Dome.
He’s 4-3 and hopes to finish the season as strong as he started, win some key games down the stretch and maybe a Japan Series game or two, then get his arm repaired during the winter and return to Hawks in 2004.
But by what name will the Hawks be known when spring training begins again in February?
Press reports say Daiei almost certainly must sell the team with the awesome talent described above, because of the shaky financial condition of the parent company and in spite of the sellout crowds the team attracts at home and often on the road.
I was there Aug. 12 and Aug. 13 when Fukuoka Dome attendance was announced at the 48,000 capacity for games against Lotte. The Aug. 16 and Aug. 17 contests at Osaka Dome against the Buffaloes drew 48,000 and 46,000, respectively.
Believe me, the city of Fukuoka is on fire with pennant fever, and the impending sale of the ballclub may be having a subliminal effect on the performance of the players and in the hearts of the fans.
They want to win one more championship under the Daiei banner because, in spite of the current company financial troubles, it was chairman Isao Nakauchi who bought the Hawks, moved the team from Osaka to Kyushu in 1989, then built the high-tech, state-of-the-art, retractable domed stadium, hired Oh as manager, developed some great players and produced a winner.
What will happen after October remains to be seen. Rumors say Iguchi will be posted in November and play in the majors in 2004.
We’ll see if a buyer emerges for the team, the Fukuoka Dome and the Sea Hawk Hotel and Resort adjacent to the stadium.
In the meantime, let’s hope the Daiei front office people have reserved the Fukuoka Dome for Oct. 18, 19, 25 and 26, the dates when Games 1 and 2 and, if necessary, Games 6 and 7 of the 2003 Japan Series are to be played on the home field of the Pacific League champion.
I think the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks are going.
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