Check the locks on all the Colonel Sanders statues in Osaka, because the Hanshin Tigers are headed back to the Japan Series and it was a big home run from a bearded foreign star that helped get them there.
Matt Murton took the wind out of the Yomiuri Giants’ sails early with a three-run home run in the first inning and the Tigers never looked back on their way to a series-clinching 8-4 win in Game 4 of the Central League Climax Series Final Stage on Saturday night at Tokyo Dome.
“We never gave up and had confidence we could win the Climax Series Final Stage,” Tigers manager Yutaka Wada said.
The Tigers officially won the series 4-1, but actually pulled off a clean four-game sweep. All the Giants put in the win column was the automatic game they were granted as the CL champions.
“We knew in order to get where we wanted to go we had to beat the best,” Murton said. “Give them credit. Congratulations on a great season. Coming in here and winning like we did was not easy. We knew that we really needed to win tonight because we didn’t want to give them any momentum. They’re a great ball club and we knew if we gave them any sign of life, it could be trouble. So it was nice to be able to finish it today.”
The Tigers rushed to the middle of the field after the final out, but held off on a doage for their manager.
“For sure I would enjoy a doage (the tradition of tossing a victorious manager in the air after winning a championship) after we win the Japan Series,” Wada said.
Hanshin closer Oh Seung-hwan made his sixth consecutive appearance of the Climax Series (including two in the first stage) in Game 4 and was touched up in the ninth by Frederich Cepeda and Hayato Sakamoto, who hit solo homers, before getting the three outs he needed to set off the celebrations. The Korean right-hander recorded saves in the first three games of the final stage was was named MVP of the series.
“I pitched in six games in a row, but our victory was a total team effort,” Oh said. “I’d like to thank the Hanshin fans for the support all year.”
Hanshin will be the first non-pennant winner to represent the CL in the Japan Series since the Chunichi Dragons in 2007. The team’s last trip to the Japanese Fall Classic came in 2005, when the Tigers were swept by the Chiba Lotte Marines. That Marines team featured a shortstop by the name of Tsuyoshi Nishioka, currently the Tigers’ starting third baseman.
Just like the Kansas City Royals in MLB, the Tigers will be going for their first title since 1985. That crown was won behind famously bearded hard-slugging Oklahoman Randy Bass, that year’s regular season and Japan Series MVP.
It was Bass, of course, who Tigers fans had in mind when they chucked a statue of KFC founder Col. Sanders into the Dotonbori River in Osaka in 1985. In a celebratory mood, they were throwing in fans who resembled members of the team, and no one present was a convincing enough Randy Bass, so into the river the Colonel went, sparking the Curse of the Colonel that has popularly been blamed for the team’s failure to win a Japan Series since.
Murton hasn’t worn his beard very long and isn’t known for it the way Bass was, but he resembled the Tigers great with his big home run in the first inning. Murton finished the series with five RBIs.
Mauro Gomez helped put the game out of reach with a two-run single in the seventh that made the score 8-2. Gomez, in his first year in Japan, drove in eight runs during the series.
“I’m very happy,” Gomez said. “I think that’s one of our goals. To be in the Japan Series. We made it.”
The Tigers finished seven games out of first place during the regular season and needed the Giants to beat the Hiroshima Carp in those teams’ final game to be assured of a second-place finish in the CL.
Randy Messenger threw a gem in Game 1 of the Tigers’ first-stage series against the Carp to lead Hanshin to a 1-0 win. The Tigers won the best-of-three series with a scoreless tie in Game 2 to advance to the final stage, where they managed to keep up their winning ways.
“We barely got into second place and next thing you know … we’re playing well at the right time,” said hitting coach Tom O’Malley. “Hopefully it continues.”
Atsushi Nomi got the start and the win on Saturday, throwing five innings and allowing two runs on nine hits. Yomiuri had a beat on the Hanshin lefty, but was never able to manage a big hit with runners on base.
The Giants finished with 13 hits, but the CL champions didn’t turn enough of them into runs. Leslie Anderson had three hits while Hisayoshi Chono and Taishi Ota each had two. That trio combined to drive in zero runs.
The Kyojin were in a hole early, with starter Yuki Koyama tagged for six runs in 1 1/3 innings, and were never able to dig themselves out.
“We had a great season,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said. “I am just disappointed it had to end this way, but I am proud of our team and all the players who fought hard and did their best all year.”
Hanshin entered Game 4 cognizant of how the Dragons coughed up a 3-1 lead in the final stage two seasons ago and were hopeful of burying the Giants the first time they got the chance.
Hanshin’s Hiroki Uemoto and Takashi Toritani each singled in the top of the first before Murton’s home run made the score 3-0. The next batter, Kosuke Fukudome, deposited a ball in the right-field seats to make the score 4-0.
The Tigers kept piling it on in the next inning, going ahead 6-0 on a two-run homer from Nishioka.
Yomiuri’s Yoshiyuki Kamei hit a solo homer, his second in as many days, in the bottom of the second to get the Giants on the board, and Shuichi Murata brought in another run with a sacrifice fly in the third. Cepeda, and Sakamoto added their solo homers in the ninth.
Hanshin gets to sit back now and await the winner of the PL final stage.
“It feels good,” Messenger said. “We’re still not done, obviously. We still have the Nippon Series to go through. So it feels good. We got to this stage. Me and Matt, we’ve been here for five years together. To get here already, it’s nice.”
They’ll relish this one for a few hours, then it’ll be back to business.
“Celebrate tonight and get back to work tomorrow,” Murton said with a smile.