The final stage of the Central League Climax Series was all about clutch plays. More so, the ones the Hanshin Tigers made at the plate and all over the field, and the stench of missed opportunity that lingered after most of the Yomiuri Giants’ half-innings.
The Tigers “swept” their archrivals to win the series (the official tally was 4-1 due to the Giants’ automatic one game advantage), extracting a bit of revenge for being swept out of Koshien Stadium in the first stage in 2010, but each game hinged on one or two plays. A Yomiuri hit here, or catch there, and the end result could’ve been much different.
“That’s it,” said Tom O’Malley, one of the Hanshin hitting coaches. “They had opportunities, runners in scoring position just like we did. We got the ones that counted. That takes a lot of pressure off your pitching, and sure enough, we had good pitching, played some good defense and got some timely hits. Those are the ingredients for a successful series. I’m just happy for all the players.”
The usual suspects showed up for the Tigers during the final stage. Mauro Gomez hit .375 and drove in eight runs; Matt Murton drove in five; closer Oh Seung-hwan finished with three saves, including one of the four-out variety; Minoru Iwata kept his cool in numerous jams and pitched the team to a win in Game 2; and other Tigers players stepped up when needed.
Gomez and Murton will get the lion’s share of the credit for driving in runs in big spots, but some of it was due to the efforts of Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Hiroki Uemoto and Hanshin stalwart Takashi Toritani, putting them in position to cash in.
“You can’t ever just try to focus your attention on one guy,” Tigers pitcher Randy Messenger said. “Because there’s eight other guys who have a bat in their hands and can hurt you too. Hopefully we’ll keep it going.”
The Giants’ batters put the team in position for big innings time and time again. Yomiuri’s roster of big guns just kept coming up short.
But when Murton and manager Yutaka Wada spoke of how hard it was to beat Yomiuri the way Hanshin did, it wasn’t lip service. The Giants were in every game, and it was only because the Tigers were able to make the right play at the right time that they advanced. Generally that’s true of any series, but it’s amplified in one where a major momentum shift was always just one swing away.
“It’s baseball,” Messenger said. “Look at it at home with the (Kansas City) Royals. You never know. Anybody can beat anybody. It’s just we came through with the right pitches and timely hitting.”
Hanshin entered the series as the underdog. The club had barely made it into second place in the CL and was stepping into the home of the Giants, who had won the pennant, not to mention their last four against the Tigers during the regular season.
“Even though the Giants won the pennant, we did our best during the season,” Nishioka said.
The Tigers have made all the right moves since the postseason began. Now they’re back in the Japan Series for the first time since 2005 with a chance to erase the demons of Octobers past with a first title since that magical summer of 1985.
The team has reached the Japan Series only twice since then, losing in 2003 and 2005. So Tigers fans are hungry for a winner and it’s fallen to this group, who went 5-0-1 through the Central League Climax Series, to try and deliver.
“I don’t know if I would consider it pressure so much as I would just excitement,” Murton said. “I love as a player being able to play in those environments where a lot is on the line.
“Our city, the entire Kansai region, they deserve it. They deserve a chance to see some Nippon Series baseball. It’s been nine years now, and it’s been a good while since the championship has been won.
“So we know there’s a lot of work ahead of us. We still have that final goal in mind. Hopefully we’ll be able to do something extremely special. We’ve had a good year so far, but it would be really nice to finish it off and put the icing on the cake.”