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Hawks claim back-to-back Japan Series titles

Fukuoka Softbank becomes first NPB team to win consecutive titles since Seibu Lions from 1990-92

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks only needed five games to win the Japan Series and show everyone they were the best team in NPB last season.

Almost exactly one year to the day, Softbank proved that nothing had changed.

Lee Dae-ho capped his outstanding series with a two-run home run (which required a replay review) and the Hawks won their second consecutive Japan Series title with a 5-0 win over the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in Game 5 on Thursday night at Jingu Stadium.

“I feel great for all our players,” Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo said. “We took it one game at a time all year, and we refused to lose. I am so happy.”

The Hawks are Japan Series champions for the second consecutive season and for the seventh time in franchise history. Softbank is the first team to win back-to-back championships since the Seibu Lions won three straight from 1990-92.

“It’s not easy because other clubs are also putting forth the effort to get here,” team owner Masayoshi Son said. “So winning it in consecutive years is truly a blessing.”

First-year skipper Kudo, earned his first title as a manager to go along with the 11 he won as a player.

“It is totally different winning as a manager than as a player,” Kudo said. “I feel happy for all my players who did such a great job this year, and we even won the Japan Series playing without our captain (Seiichi) Uchikawa. I want to congratulate them all.”

Kudo is the 10th rookie manager to lead his team to the title.

“We hope he doesn’t get too comfortable,” team chairman Sadaharu Oh said. “We’ve set a goal to repeat and expect him to do the same next year.”

Lee was named MVP of the series after going 8-for-16 with two homers and eight RBIs.

“My teammates supported me and gave me a lot of chances to succeed,” Lee said. “I am happy I was able to come through, and it is a great honor to win this Japan Series MVP prize.”

The Korean slugger is the first foreign winner since the Orix BlueWave’s Troy Neel earned the award in 1996. The last Hawks foreign MVP was pitcher Joe Stanka in 1964, when the franchise was still known as the Nankai Hawks.

Lee proved to be nearly unstoppable out of the No. 4 spot in the lineup, where he was placed after Uchikawa was ruled out with fractured ribs hours prior to Game 1.

“It is too bad Uchikawa could not play in the Japan Series,” Lee said. “I am just happy I could fill in for him and do a good job.”

Hawks players Kenji Akashi, Shota Takeda, and Rick van den Hurk were given outstanding player awards. The Swallows’ Tetsuto Yamada earned the fighting spirit award.

“It’s like the icing on the cake,” Akashi said. “I’m more pleased with the championship.”

The Swallows did all they could, but came up a little bit short.

“You have to tip your cap to them,” Swallows closer Tony Barnette said. “They had a really good team. We just ran into the buzz saw. It’s about who makes the fewest mistakes. They made the least amount of mistakes and they capitalized on the most mistakes.

“That being said, it was a great year. We did a lot of things a lot of people didn’t think we would do. We went from worst to first (in the Central League). That’s a big step.”

Lee was 1-for-3 and drove in two runs with his homer in the clincher on Thursday. He also drew a walk and had a scary moment in the ninth when he was hit by a pitch. Akashi had three hits and drove in a run, while Yuki Yanagita was 1-for-5 with two RBIs.

The Hawks scored at least four runs in all five games.

Softbank starter Jason Standridge threw six shutout frames to earn the win. Standridge allowed four hits, struck out two and walked a pair. Closer Dennis Sarfate closed out the game and the series in the ninth.

Yakult stranded a runner on third in the second inning, left a man on second in the third and was 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position.

Swallows starter Masanori Ishikawa pitched 4 1/3 innings and was charged with four runs — three earned — on five hits. He struck out four and walked one.

No Swallows starter lasted beyond 4 2/3 innings during the series.

Akashi doubled to begin the top half of the third and moved up a base when Yanagita grounded out. Lee stepped to the plate and sent a ball over the foul pole in left. It was called a home run on the field and stood up after a lengthy replay review.

Kenta Imamiya doubled to start the fourth, and Standridge drew a one-out walk later in the inning. That ended Ishikawa’s night, but an error at third on a hard-hit ball by Keizo Kawashima left reliever Daichi Ishiyama facing a bases-loaded, one-out jam.

Akashi drove in a run with an RBI single, and the Hawks pushed across another on a groundout by Yanagita that made the score 4-0.

Yuichi Honda singled in the top of the ninth and went to second on a sacrifice bunt by Shuhei Fukuda. He moved up on a groundout by Akashi and scored when Yanagita singled into center.

“I think both teams really played well, but our pitching staff dominated them,” Oh said. “I think we really showed our strength Both offensively and defensively.”

The Hawks’ triumph continued the Pacific League’s recent dominance of the Japanese Fall Classic. Pa League clubs have won three straight titles and 10 of the previous 13.

Son is not only the Softbank owner, he’s also the current chairman of U.S. telecommunications giant Sprint, which is located in a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, home of the Kansas City Royals, who are currently competing in the World Series.

Son jokingly made reference to the series after the Hawks’ triumph.

“Sprint is in Kansas, so if the Royals win, we want to do a real World Series,” a Son joked with a smile on his face. “I wonder why the American champions are called world champions and the series is called the World Series. We should play a real World Series with the Japanese champions and the American champions.”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report