FUKUOKA – It wasn’t the ending anyone envisioned, but the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks aren’t complaining.
They’re the 2014 Japan Series champions, and that’s the only thing that matters.
Nobuhiro Matsuda put the Hawks in the lead with an RBI single in the eighth and a tightly contested game ended in almost chaotic fashion as the Hawks outlasted the Hanshin Tigers to win the Japan Series with a 1-0 victory in Game 5 on Thursday at Yafuoku Dome.
The Tigers staged a frantic rally in the top of the ninth, loading the bases with one out for Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who hit a grounder to first. Softbank’s Kenji Akashi threw to catcher Toru Hosokawa for the force out at home, and Nishioka was called out for running outside the lane on his way to first while trying to beat out the double play.
Confusion reigned for a few seconds, until the Hawks realized they’d won and spilled out of their dugout to begin their celebrations.
Tigers manager Yutaka Wada darted onto the field as well, as he and the Hanshin players questioned the umpire’s ruling.
That didn’t change the outcome, and the Hawks threw outgoing manager Koji Akiyama into the air during the traditional celebratory doage. It was the third doage in front of the home fans for Akiyama, who was also tossed after the team clinched the Pacific League pennant and PL Climax Series titles.
“It just feels great,” Akiyama said. “I’m speechless. I got tossed 10 times today because (Seiichi) Uchikawa said there are no other manager who’ve been tossed 10 times.”
Softbank won the series 4-1 and never trailed after losing Game 1, winning four straight to close it out.
“I thought we were in good shape when it was 1-1, and it was good we were able to win the rest of the games and win the championship at home,” Akiyama said.
Matsuda delivered the decisive hit with his tiebreaking RBI single in the eighth off Tigers starter Randy Messenger, who was valiant in defeat.
“Obviously I didn’t want to give up that run there in the eighth inning, but that’s baseball,” Messenger said. “I pitched my (butt) off for 7 2/3.”
Uchikawa was named Japan Series MVP while Softbank players Dennis Sarfate, Shota Takeda and Yuki Yanagita also received top player awards for their play. Uchikawa hit .350 with three RBIs during the series.
“This was won by everyone,” Uchikawa said of the award. “In a short series it’s about how much you can come through at the right time, and I appreciate that my teammates set the table for me. I also appreciate the pitchers for their performance.”
Messenger was given the Fighting Spirit Award as the top player from the losing team. He won Game 1 and allowed three runs in his 14 2/3 innings on the mound.
“It’s bittersweet,” Messenger said. “How we lost the game, and we go home now. We didn’t do our job and win the championship like we wanted.”
The Hawks’ win sent Akiyama out on top. The 52-year-old manager announced his intention to step down before the Hawks began the postseason and he’ll leave as a champion.
“We all heard he was leaving before the Climax Series, and we were shocked by that,” Uchikawa said. “We were certainly saddened by that, but it was great to end our season this way.”
Akiyama leaves having won three Pacific League pennants and two Japan Series crowns. Akiyama was 456-368-40 in the dugout, and the team had five A-Class finishes in his six seasons in charge.
“I have finished my tenure of six years as the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks manager,” Akiyama said. “I am so happy to go out as No. 1 in Japan. It’s like a dream. Thanks so much to our players staff and fans. Thanks for these six years. I know the Hawks will be strong again next year, so I will ask the fans to keep on supporting the team.”
For Matsuda, it was a sweet ending to a difficult series. The Softbank third baseman was solid in the field, but entered Game 5 hitting .133. He had a pair of hits to finish the series at .211 with three RBIs, including the biggest one of them all.
“The real important hit was by Match (Matsuda),” Uchikawa said. “I was always thinking that if I set the table for the guys after me, we could make something happen. It just doesn’t feel like I won the game alone, but I received the award (series MVP) on behalf of the other players.”
Matsuda also drove in perhaps the biggest run of Softbank’s regular season with a sayonara single that clinched the PL pennant in the team’s final game of the year.
The loss means Hanshin will have to wait at least one more year to add to its lone Japan Series title, won in 1985. The Tigers came up short with runners on base throughout Game 5, and fell victim to the umpire’s decision on the path Nishioka took from the batter’s box to first at the end.
“We just lost the series,” Tigers outfielder Matt Murton said. “Congratulations to the Hawks, they had a great season. Very disappointing way for that game to finish.”
Softbank’s Ryota Igarashi was the winning pitcher, and Sarfate was credited with the save, but starter Tadashi Settsu did a lion’s share of the work on this night.
Settsu was on top of his game all night. Getting strikes with his curveball, he made life difficult for Hanshin’s hitters, and while he allowed four hits, he didn’t allow any with a runner on base. Settsu struck out seven and walked one over six shutout frames.
“Settsu pitched like an ace tonight, I think,” Akiyama said.
Messenger took the loss for the Tigers.