SENDAI — For all the new beginnings the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ win in the first stage of the Climax Series signified, there was an unmistakable sense of finality lingering in the air at Kleenex Stadium.
Eagles manager Katsuya Nomura saluted the crowd then retreated to the quiet of the home dugout immediately after Rakuten’s 4-1 win over the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in Game 2 on Sunday. He sat there for several minutes, watching his team celebrate on the field, undoubtedly aware that most of the 21,388 fans in attendance were chanting his name.
“Sendai fans are the No. 1 fans in Japan,” Nomura said. “They have been one of the few bright spots with the Eagles for me.”
Watching the scene unfold before him, Nomura might have wondered if he had just managed his last home game as the Eagles’ skipper.
Controversy has overshadowed the team’s accomplishments lately, as Nomura and team executives have traded barbs through the press on the subject of the manager’s future with the team.
The 74-year-old wants to manage. The team is looking for a new voice on the bench.
Unsurprisingly, the situation was on the manager’s mind as he addressed the crowd on the field following the game.
“Today I have something to say,” Nomura said as wife Sachiyo looked on from the stands. “The team has decided I will not be back as manager. Four years ago, I took over a last-place team and was asked to make it a contender. Today we won the first stage of the Climax Series and will now go to Stage 2 with a chance to go to the Japan Series.”
Nomura wasn’t done, later expressing his regrets over the situation to the press during his postgame interview in the media room as the fans continued to celebrate the win with chants of “Nomura Eagles.”
“It is regrettable that all of this is getting thrown away,” Nomura said. “I wanted to stay another year. The team only says the contract is up because they want to fire me. It is really regrettable.”
The team has offered Nomura a place in the organization as an honorary adviser — similar to the title Shigeo Nagashima holds with the Yomiuri Giants — but Nomura has declined the offer.
Reportedly, the manager has been told not even a trip to the Japan Series would save his position and Nomura seems bent on putting that to the test.
“I would like to thank the Rakuten fans for everything during the last four years,” Nomura said. “We’ll do our best to win in Sapporo and the Japan Series.”
Nomura has overseen a tremendous period of growth for a franchise that played its first game in 2005. He took the reigns in 2006 and began a rebuilding project that has now brought the fledging club within shouting distance of an appearance in the Japan Series.
They’ve done it with castoffs like Takeshi Yamasaki, who breathed new life into his career after arriving in Sendai, and a pair of stellar pitchers in Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka.
“The Rakuten Eagles are still a young team,” Iwakuma said. “But this year we became a strong team. We still have some games to play and there is still the Japan Series.”
That trio played the starring roles against the Hawks over the weekend to propel the Eagles into the second round.
Yamasaki hit a pair of homers, including a huge three-run blast that put away Game 2, and finished with a series-high four RBIs.
“Every pro player’s dream is to go to the Japan Series,” Yamasaki said. “So we’re going to Sapporo with that in mind.”
Iwakuma and Tanaka each pitched complete games, with Tanaka turning in one of his best outings of the year in Game 2 — nine strikeouts, no walks and just one unearned run allowed.
“It was good that I did not walk anybody,” Tanaka said. “But more importantly, I pitched a complete game, so I am very proud of that.”
The Eagles will try to keep their run going in the second-stage of the Pacific League Climax Series against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, beginning on Oct. 21 in Sapporo.
As the regular-season PL champions, the Fighters will begin the series with an automatic one-game advantage.
“Nippon Ham is a mature, adult team,” Nomura said. “The one game they already have as an advantage is huge. It’s a big handicap for us.”
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