CHIBA — The Chiba Lotte Marines fans in the outfield stands sang and danced away two years’ worth of frustration long after the final regular-season game of the year.
Who can blame them? It feels good to be back in the playoffs.
Toshiaki Imae and Saburo Omura each drove in two runs, pitcher Yoshihisa Naruse rebounded from a rocky start, and Marines clinched the final spot in the Pacific League Climax Series with a 5-4 win over the Orix Buffaloes on the final day of the PL season.
Lotte’s victory on Friday at Chiba Marine Stadium completes the PL playoff picture with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks as the regular-season champions and the Seibu Lions and Marines finishing second and third, respectively.
The Marines can now turn their attention to the Lions, who they will meet in the first stage of the PLCS. The Marines were 13-11-1 against the Lions this year but were swept in last series between the teams Sept. 10-12.
In his first year at the helm, manager Norifumi Nishimura has guided the Marines into the playoffs for the first time since 2007. His triumph helps ease the memories of a tumultuous 2009 campaign that ended with a fifth-place finish and the controversial ousting of popular manager Bobby Valentine.
“All the players, coaches and staff, everyone really, did their very best this season,” Nishimura said. “Next we will compete with Seibu and Softbank in the Climax Series. We’re going to do our best to reach the Japan Series.”
Imae finished 1-for-4 but his lone hit turned out to be the biggest of the night. With his team down 2-1 in the first inning, Imae sent a fastball screaming toward the seats in left for a go ahead two-run homer, celebrating as soon as it left his bat.
Lotte never trailed from that point.
“The pitch was in the strike zone and I was able to put a good swing on it,” Imae said. “It would have been a big disappointment for us to lose this game,” he added.
Omura was 1-for-3 with a pair of RBIs and Shoitsu Omatsu also drove in a run. Tsuyoshi Nishioka was 1-for-4 to finish the year with a franchise-record 206 hits.
Naruse (13-11) gave up two runs in the first inning but settled down as the game wore on. He picked up the win after allowing three runs on six hits with six strikeouts over 6 1/3 innings. He improved to 7-0 against Orix this year.
Lotte entered the game in a tie for third place with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the PL standings.
Needing a win, they caught a bit of a break as Orix manager Akinobu Okada, wanting to give some younger players a chance to play, sat slugger Alex Cabrera and ace pitcher Chihiro Kaneko, a 17-game winner, in the finale.
Even with a scaled-down squad, the Buffaloes took an early 2-0 lead on RBI singles by Takahiro Okada and Hirotoshi Kitagawa.
Lotte’s Ikuhiro Kiyota drew a one-out walk in the bottom half of the inning and Freddie Bynum’s error on Tadahito Iguchi’s grounder left the Marines with runners on second and third. The Marines pushed across a run on an RBI groundout by Omura.
They took the lead for good after Imae’s two-run blast. Omatsu made the score 4-2 with an RBI single in the fourth.
Buffaloes pinch hitter Daisuke Maeda made the score 4-3 with a run-scoring sacrifice fly in the seventh.
The Marines answered in the bottom half, pushing the advantage to 5-3 on an RBI double by Omura.
The Buffaloes added a run in the ninth on an RBI groundout by Bynum but weren’t able to score again.
Orix starter Masaki Ihara (0-3) took the loss after allowing four runs — one earned — on five hits over four innings.
The Marines and Lions meet in Game 1 of the first stage of the PL Climax Series on Oct. 9 at Seibu Dome. First pitch is scheduled for 1 p.m.