Yomiuri Giants manager Tatsunori Hara cried last season after the Chunichi Dragons sent his team into a long offseason with a 3-0 sweep in the second stage of the Central League Climax Series.
There were tears this season too. That’s about the only thing that was the same.
Hara broke down during his postgame interview after the Giants avenged last season’s disappointment with a 3-1-1 series victory over the Dragons in the second stage of this year’s climax series — the Giants entered the series with a one-game advantage as the CL champion — on Saturday.
“Last year, I shed tears because the three consecutive losses were so regrettable,” Hara said after the series finale. “But today, I cried because I’m very happy. I was so excited and my players stepped up.”
The Giants have never conjured images of scrappiness which are usually reserved for underdogs, but this year’s trip to the Japan Series had its share of bumps in the road for Hara and his club.
The last time the former all-star third baseman led the Giants this far was in 2002 and there were no surprises.
Those Giants rolled to a 86-52-2 record, won the Central League pennant by 11 games and led Japanese baseball in runs (691) and ERA (3.04) before crushing the Seibu Lions in four games to win the Japan Series.
This year’s team dealt with a rash of injuries and struggled early in the season, making a run to the Japan Series an unlikely prospect as late as July.
Despite the injuries and subpar results, among other things, earlier this year, Hara managed to find a way to push the right buttons.
He settled on Alex Ramirez in the cleanup spot to start the season, with Michihiro Ogasawara batting third, and watched the duo set the CL on fire after the all-star break to carry the team to a first-place finish
The Yomiuri skipper also got unexpected contributions out of players such as teenage sensation Hayato Sakamoto, Yoshiyuki Kamei, Golden Glove winner Takahiro Suzuki and others when injuries hit or the team needed a change of pace.
He also stood firm when early-season injuries caused a decline in Ogasawara’s numbers and pitcher Koji Uehara struggled — and was eventually demoted to the ni-gun squad — reaping the benefits when his stars rounded into form in the latter part of the season.
Following a less-than-stellar first half, Hara and the Giants hit their stride in the fall. With the Hanshin Tigers threatening to run away with the pennant, the Giants went 7-0 against their Osaka rivals down the stretch.
That helped Yomiuri erase a 13-game late-season deficit in the standings to win the CL title.
After the Tigers fell in the first round of the playoffs, Hara and the Giants were left to face the team that embarrassed them at Tokyo Dome last season. But again, Hara and the Kyojin found the right formula.
“They were the team we had to beat,” Hara said. “During the pennant race, we beat them. But it’s significant that we beat them in the Climax Series.”
Hara was rewarded and surprised with an unexpected doage — tossing the manager in the air following a victory — after the final out of the climax series. Hara had requested the team wait until a Japan Series victory but the Giants had other things in mind.
“We went through tough games and manager Hara had a hard time,” Ogasawara said. “We wanted to express that feeling. We had it in the best way after winning the game.”
It may have been the first of many as Hara is in position to collect an impressive amount of hardware in a short amount of time with the Japan Series and possible appearances in the Asia Series and World Baseball Classic upcoming for the Yomiuri manager.
But first, however, Hara and the Giants will have to take care of business against Seibu in the Japan Series which begins Nov. 1 at Tokyo Dome.
“When I was a player, the Giants and Lions had many hard-nosed games in the Japan Series,” Hara said. “We will keep the tradition going and play great games.”
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