FUKUOKA – The invitation ticket for the Japan Series had been delivered before the game was officially over.
Hawks closer Takahiro Mahara got three outs in the top of the 12th inning with the score tied 1-1, and at that moment, the two-time reigning Pacific League champion Fukuoka Softbank clinched its first NPB Fall Classic berth since 2003 in Game 3 of the PL Climax Series final stage on Saturday afternoon.
Since the rules limit the games to 12 innings in the CS, when the Seibu Lions failed to score a run in the top of the final frame, the Hawks clinched the series.
To make matters official, Yuya Hasegawa drove Shuhei Fukuda home in the bottom of the 12th to give the Hawks a sayonara, 2-1 triumph.
The Hawks entered the series with a one-win advantage and swept the Lions 4-0.
“It never gets old,” Hawks manager Koji Akiyama said of the doage (victory toss) that he received from his players after the game at Yahoo Dome. “I hope to get it one more time as we become the Japanese champions.”
In 2003, the franchise, then called the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, defeated the Hanshin Tigers in a seven-game Japan Series.
Seiichi Uchikawa, who went 5-for-11 with three RBIs in the series, was selected as the PLCS MVP. Hasegawa, who had both of his team’s RBIs on four hits in Saturday’s game, earned the Outstanding Player Award.
Seibu broke a 0-0 deadlock in the top of the 10th on a Jose Fernandez RBI hit. In the bottom half of the inning, Hasegawa drove in the tying run with a double.
Finishing in a tie would still have given Softbank an edge because the Lions could only earn up to three wins the rest of the series. That would’ve meant Seibu could only end up tying in the series. If that had happened under NPB’s quirky Climax Series rules, the Hawks would have obtained a Japan Series spot because they are a higher-seeded team.
After Mahara retired a batter for the third out in the top of the 12th, Game 2 hero Nobuhiko Matsunaka was about to rush out of the dugout and onto the diamond, perhaps thinking the game was over at that moment, while others seemed to know it wasn’t.
But it didn’t matter. The Hawks, who had faltered in numerous recent postseasons no matter how well they played in the regular season, ended their painful eight-year playoff curse.
Until this year, the Kyushu club made the playoffs six times since 2004, when the current playoff system was introduced, but never advanced to the Japan Series.
So after the game was over, the Hawks Nine, including the team’s spiritual leader Hiroki Kokubo, Yuichi Honda and Munenori Kawasaki, broke into tears on the bench instead of flashing smiles during that joyful moment.
“I’m extremely pleased, that’s all I can say,” shortstop Kawasaki said.
“I actually thought about what we’ve been through and that we’ve always ended up in tears on the bench since 2004, while I was fielding. . . . I can’t put it into words.”
The game was a nail-biter, an entertaining duel between starters Hideaki Wakui of Seibu and Toshiya Sugiuchi of the Hawks.
Wakui, a right-hander, didn’t allow a hit in the first five innings and ended up giving up just one run. He scattered seven hits in 9⅔ innings on 127 pitches. Sugiuchi worked 9⅓ innings and gave up a run and five hits on 127 pitches.
Sugiuchi, who had been 1-5 with a 5.59 ERA in Climax Series outings, retired 18 batters in a row at one point.
“As a game became like that (pitching duel), it was more like Wakui against (the Hawks),” Lions skipper Hisanobu Watanabe said. “Wakui probably had his best performance of all year.”
Asked in what areas Softbank bettered Seibu, Watanabe responded by saying, “In all aspects. There were big gaps between us, for sure. But those aren’t gaps we can’t make up. So we’ll challenge the big power next year.”
Mahara (1-0) earned the win, while Kazuhisa Makita (0-1) took the loss for Seibu.
Hasegawa had four hits and Uchikawa added two for Softbank. Cleanup hitter Takeya Nakamura and catcher Ginjiro Sumitani each had a pair of hits for the Lions, who swept the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the first stage.
Seibu’s Hiroyuki Nakajima was 1-for-5 with three strikeouts.
While the Hawks players exhibited their mixed emotions once the contest was over, Akiyama said his team has unfinished business. That, obviously, means a triumph in the Japan Series, which begins next Saturday in Fukuoka.
“We have one more goal to finish,” the third-year manager said.
Dragons cruise to win
Ryosuke Hirata hit a bases-clearing double in the first inning, left-hander Yudai Kawai allowed one unearned run over five innings and the Chunichi Dragons downed the Tokyo Yakult Swallows 5-1 in Game 4 of the Central League final stage on Saturday.
The CL champion Dragons, who had an automatic one-win advantage as the league champion, moved one win away from a Japan Series berth for the second consecutive year and 10th overall. They can also book a meeting against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks with a tie in Game 5 on Sunday.
Tony Blanco opened the scoring with a one-out RBI single after a leadoff single by Masahiro Araki and Hirata followed one out later with a double to right off Katsuki Akagawa after the lefty loaded the bases for a 4-0 lead at Nagoya Dome.
Yakult rookie shortstop Tetsuto Yamada committed an error that put runners at the corners, setting the stage for Blanco in the first, but drove in his first career run on his first hit — a double in the third.
Blanco went deep off reliever Tetsuya Yamamoto with a towering blast to left leading off the fifth.
Kawai yielded two hits, struck out one and walked two and four relievers shut down Yakult the rest of the way. Akagawa took the loss after giving up four runs in four innings of work.