There was no secret that Hiromitsu Ochiai’s days as the Chunichi Dragons manager were numbered. The team had, after all, announced in September it would not renew his contract after the season.
He didn’t discuss the situation in the immediate aftermath of the team’s decision and similarly held his tongue after the Dragons completed an improbable run to a second straight Central League title.
The Dragons in fact made it all the way to Game 7 of the Japan Series, extending the season to it’s farthest point, before the clock finally ran out on Ochiai’s eight-year run with the Dragons.
But there was no storybook ending or doage. Instead, Ochiai made an unceremonious walk through the hallways of Yahoo Dome, speaking, as usual, in an almost hushed tone as a gaggle of media members strained to hear his thoughts.
“I feel sorry, but I have no regrets,” Ochiai said immediately after Chunichi’s 3-0 loss to the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in Game 7. “Given the circumstances, these guys got us here. I give the credit to them. I’ll be gone, but just hope they’ll use what they’ve done and continue to do their jobs.
“I’ll be watching on the outside from now on. It’s been a good eight years.”
Ochiai’s time with the Dragons was ripe with success.
He took the reigns in 2004 and immediately guided the team to the CL pennant and an appearance in the Japan Series. The ensuing seven years brought three more pennants and four trips to the Japan Series, where in 2007 Ochiai delivered Chunichi its first title in 56 years.
If his impending departure had an adverse effect on the team, it didn’t show. The Dragons seemed to do the opposite actually, banding together to go 15-7-3 while chasing down the Tokyo Yakult Swallows for the pennant after the team’s announcement.
“Everybody wanted to win for him,” pitcher Maximo Nelson said. “We’re going to miss him. Everybody wanted to do well.”
Chunichi then dismissed the Swallows in five games — with a one-game advantage — in the Climax Series, giving Ochiai a shot to go out on top.
In the Japan Series, they ran into a loaded Hawks squad and took them to the limit, before losing in Ochiai’s final turn in the dugout.
“We finally heard his parting words from his own mouth, so it’s good,” reliever Takuya Asao said. “I wish we could’ve finished in a better way. We fell short and would like to have a better year next year. The manager and coaches told us they would be watching us.”
Now Ochiai and the Dragons will go their separate ways.
While the manager heads into a, for now, uncertain future, the team will have questions to answer if they hope to return to the Japan Series in Morimichi Takagi’s first year in charge.
Offense will be a concern. The Dragons struggled at the plate for most of the season and didn’t score more than two runs in any game of the Japan Series.
Pitching is also a question mark, with Chen Wei-yin likely heading to the majors and decisions to be made concerning Asao and closer Hitoki Iwase in the bullpen.
The Dragons do have a crop of good young players to develop, but now there will be a different operator pressing all the buttons.
Takagi is already hard at work as Ochiai plots his new path.
Before that, however, the manager gathered the team and addressed them as a group in the locker room as the sounds of the Softbank celebration wafted through Yahoo Dome. According to Nikkan Sports, he was in tears as he spoke.
“Thank you for the last eight years,” Ochiai was quoted as saying to the team. “I’m able to be here because of all of you. We could’ve been done in September. I’m appreciative of you.
“Don’t play baseball that’s not your style of play. Otherwise, you waste what you’ve done all these years.”
Hawks take on Asia
Fresh from victory in the Japan Series, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks touched down in Taiwan on Wednesday ahead of the Asia Series.
The Asia Series, which will be held for the first time in three years, gets under way Friday as championship teams from Japan, South Korea, Australia and Taiwan battle it out for continental bragging rights.