The Yomiuri Giants made it three Central League pennants in three seasons on Friday night in Yokohama.
The team spilled out of the dugout following the final out to celebrate, as the BayStars, long relegated to the lower reaches of the league but making strides under manager Kiyoshi Nakahata, could only watch stoically. The Giants players partied on into the night, spraying beer and champagne all over the place.
There was nothing shocking in this ending. The surprise was more in what it took for the Giants to make it from wearing neck warmers and gloves on a chilly morning in Miyazaki on Feb 1., to donning goggles and T-shirts in a Yokohama hotel on Sept. 26.
“This year’s pennant race was really long and rugged, and the season was really difficult,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said. “However, everyone came together and struggled and sweat and knew what it took to win. They gave it their all.”
This wasn’t a romp through the Central League. Yomiuri didn’t run circles around anyone — the Giants won the CL by a final margin of 10½ games in 2012, 12½ in 2013 and are currently up by seven, with games left to play, this year — it was just the only team with enough horses to get the job done.
The Giants clinched the pennant this year with a team batting average of .256 with 567 runs scored, totals that were last and fourth, respectively, in the CL at the start of Saturday’s games. Yomiuri’s offensive stars were uncharacteristically subdued this year. Only five Giants were qualified for the batting title entering Saturday. Of that group, only Hisayoshi Chono (.297) had an average above .280. Waiting for the Kyojin to put it all together proved to be a futile exercise and a goal the team will shoot for during the postseason.
The Giants were also inconsistent on the mound, but there were standouts there at least. Tomoyuki Sugano, the likely CL MVP given the way voting for the award typically goes, is 12-5 with a 2.36 ERA and one of just two Yomiuri pitchers with double-digit victories (Toshiya Sugiuchi at 10-6 is the other) so far. Yomiuri also unearthed a gem in formerly seldom-used pitcher Yuki Koyama (6-1, 2.24), who was scheduled to have the unenviable task of starting Saturday’s post-beer fight day game.
The Giants didn’t play up to expectations. What they did was stand tallest when it mattered most. The Hiroshima Carp and Hanshin Tigers took turns taking shots at the Kyojin during the second half of the season. Whenever either crept within a game or so, the Giants would turn it on, create a little breathing room, and prepare to stave off the next salvo.
Yomiuri didn’t win the pennant on sheer talent or managerial acumen. It had to grind it out. So often able to outgun its foes, this Giants team needed the fortitude to outlast them. The Carp and Tigers can each look back and rue missed opportunities with control of the league there for the taking at various times. The Giants spent much of the year seemingly hanging by a thread, yet found the strength to hold on to the prize as their challengers fell by the wayside.
“This year is the 80th year of the Giants,” Hara said. “Regarding the pennant race, this might be one of the least-praised teams in that 80-year history in terms of scoring ability. However, there was strength in unity, and we had defensive power with that. In that way, I think this is the strongest team in those 80 years. I think we were able to win the pennant because we had that.”
There was probably a lot of relief mixed in with the joy Friday night. The fans were able to exhale first. The Giants were going to win the pennant eventually, but a loss by the Carp Friday would’ve helped expedite the process. Yomiuri was one out away from beating the BayStars, when Carp outfielder Soichiro Amaya hit an easy flyball that was caught for the final out at Koshien Stadium, sealing Hiroshima’s 4-3 loss to Hanshin.
The Giants supporters in the outfield seats at Yokohama Stadium erupted at the news. The team joined them moments later, when closer Scott Mathieson struck out Masayuki Kuwahara to end the pennant race.
While it may not have been a typical Giants season, the sight of Hara being thrown up eight times during the doage was surely a Yomiuri type of ending.