Kokubo pushes teammates to compete at highest level


Staff Writer

Hiroki Kokubo leads his team with his irreplaceable guts and leadership, not just with his bat.

Nobody really thought that Fukuoka Softbank would come back to Kyushu for the Japan Series’ final two games, after the Pacific League champions dropped the series’ first two games at home last weekend.

But Kokubo was one of the few that kept their heads held high, giving the entire Hawks team an inspirational message: Let’s come back to Fukuoka.

And that’s what will happen. The Hawks tied the series at 2 2 with a 2-1 win over the Chunichi Dragons in Game 4 on Wednesday.

“We’ve been telling ourselves, ‘Let’s return to Fukuoka,’ ” Kokubo said after Game 4. “And now we do go back down there.”

Kokubo, who hit .269 with 10 homers and 48 RBIs in 98 games this year, entered Game 5 with three consecutive multiple-hit games. Softbank skipper Koji Akiyama put him in the No. 4 spot in the lineup in Game 3 and it has certainly paid off since then.

In Game 4, Kokubo’s wily, determined play helps his club put valuable runs on the scoreboard.

In the first inning, Kokubo gave Fukuoka Softbank a 1-0 lead with a one-out RBI hit. The following batter, Nobuhiro Matsuda, hit a grounder to second that appeared to be a routine double play.

But Kokubo, a 40-year-old veteran and team captain, slid hard into the second-base bag and it induced a throwing error by shortstop Masahiro Araki. That enabled second-base runner Seiichi Uchikawa to come home for the team’s second run of the night.

“Obviously, it’s huge to get on the board first in the Japan Series,” Akiyama said. “(Kokubo) has been hitting at such a important spot in the cleanup hole, and he’s been living up to our expectations well.”

Kokubo, who copes with chronic neck pain, was more proud of the sliding play than the RBI single.

“I told coach (Yusuke) Torigoe that I would try to interrupt a double play if there’s a grounder,” said Kokubo, who drove in the first run in the first inning of Game 5 on Thursday. “I did that because it was a game like this (in the big stage).”

Kokubo’s last Japan Series appearance was in 2000, when the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks faced the Yomiuri Giants. (He missed the entire 2003 season with a knee injury.)

For Kokubo, there’s only bitter memories from that Japanese Fall Classic. Despite taking the first couple of games, the Hawks lost the next four to let the championship slip away.

So, though it appears as though the Hawks have gained momentum by winning Games 3 and 4, Kokubo dismissed this notion and will try to keep his teammates alert and focused.

“You’ve got to understand, we’ve only tied the series,” Kokubo said. “But hopefully, we’d like to win with our bats from the next game on.”