Masanori Ishikawa was soaked in beer from head to toe. The white Central League Champions T-shirt clung to the veteran Tokyo Yakult Swallows pitcher as he shuffled onto the makeshift stage in center field after the Swallows’ pennant-clinching 11-inning 2-1 victory over the Hanshin Tigers on Friday night.
The Swallows had chosen to have their “beer fight” celebration in the outfield at Jingu Stadium and invited fans to stay and watch as they went through over 2,000 bottles. Ishikawa had been called on to salute the fans who stayed one final time and bring the night to a close — since Yakult had a game in Hiroshima scheduled the next day.
Ishikawa relished every second of the celebration. At one time, the left-hander had considered nights like these a forgone conclusion. Then, when a title never came, he may have wondered if he’d ever get a night like Friday night.
“I came into spring camp in my first year after our team had won the Central League pennant and Japan Series (in 2001),” Ishikawa, one of the longest tenured Swallows, said Friday night. “I thought a championship was a sure thing, something I could get easily. But I’ve battled every year, and I realized even though it looked close, we still couldn’t reach it.
“We had tough games this year, and there was a chance for us. But we finished on the bottom last year, so our motivation this year was really high. Plus we carried the frustration from the 2012 season (when the team was eliminated by the Chunichi Dragons in the Climax Series).”
Yakult looks different from the team that finished at the bottom of the Central League in both 2013 and 2014. The pieces are mostly the same, but there was a stronger sense of assuredness about the Swallows this season. The setbacks that may have crushed them in the past were conquered and the storms that usually threw them adrift were weathered.
“We had good times and bad times,” said pitcher Yasuhiro “Ryan” Ogawa, who held the Tigers in check over six scoreless innings on Friday. “We’ve just played the way we played all year, and that’s how we won the championship. This is just the best.”
An unusually raucous crowd of 33,986 came to Jingu on Friday looking for a party. The Swallows supporters in the stands were enthusiastic and loud, out-shouting even the famed Hanshin ouendan (cheering section).
“You don’t really get to play in a game in front of this huge of an audience often, so I tried to put up by best performance,” said Kazuhiro Hatakeyama, who drove in the game’s first run with a single in the bottom of the first.
They were ready to explode when Yakult took a 1-0 lead into the eighth, and deflated after Kentaro Sekimoto tied the score with a single to center. The game remained tied until Yuhei Takai’s sayonara single in the 11th.
“I was nervous,” Ishikawa said. “I was nervous just watching the game. After it was over, all the different emotions just came to me.”
The grit and grind of the regular season — which still has a few games left — poured off the Swallows after Takai’s hit.
They rushed onto the field and grabbed manager Mitsuru Manaka, who was on that 2001 team, and tossed him in the air seven times as part of the doage celebration. Then, Ishikawa went flying, so did fellow long-serving Swallows, pitcher Shohei Tateyama and Hatakeyama as the team, which so often toils in the shadow of the crosstown Yomiuri Giants, celebrated reaching the CL summit.
“Honestly, I’m just so happy,” Ishikawa said. “So happy.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report
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