For two days, the Hiroshima Carp and their fans watched as Yomiuri Giants victories over other teams kept them from clinching a long-awaited Central League title.
Finally, on Saturday night, the Carp were able to take matters into their own hands.
Seiya Suzuki hit his 25th and 26th home runs of the season, veteran starter Hiroki Kuroda, one of the franchise’s favorite sons, did his part from the mound and the Carp ended a 25-year drought by rallying from an early deficit to beat the Giants 6-4 at Tokyo Dome to clinch their first CL pennant since 1991.
“This season our trademark was come-from-behind victories, and we did it again tonight,” said Carp manager Koichi Ogata. “Winning the pennant is a great feeling.”
The team rushed onto the field after closer Shota Nakazaki retired the Giants’ Yoshiyuki Kamei for the final out. The Carp tossed Ogata in the air seven times during the traditional doage celebration, a nod to the team capturing its seventh pennant.
Kuroda and veteran infielder Takahiro Arai, both longtime Carp who left and eventually returned to the franchise, were tossed as well, going airborne five times each.
“Arai and I had said that we wanted to make this team competitive again and we’ve finally made it to this point,” Kuroda said.
As CL champions, the Carp will host the final stage of the Climax Series beginning Oct. 12. It will mark the first time a postseason game has been played in Hiroshima since the team beat the Seibu Lions in Game 5 of the 1991 Japan Series.
“We have to keep making adjustments and just keep playing the way we can play,” said pitcher Yusuke Nomura.
Hiroshima Prefecture Gov. Hidehiko Yuzaki and Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui were among the 46,643 in attendance at the Big Egg to see the Carp return to glory.
“This victory is for all of Hiroshima, the city, the fans, our players and coaches,” Ogata said. “But it is not over until we win the Japan Series and become Nippon-ichi (No. 1 in Japan).”
The Carp rode Suzuki to victory on Saturday.
“I can’t believe this,” Suzuki said. “I’m really happy.”
The outfielder is in the middle of a tremendous season. The fourth-year star, a native of Tokyo, went 2-for-4 and drove in three runs in the clincher. Suzuki is hitting .337 with 26 home runs and 87 RBIs. Ryuhei Matsuyama also went deep for Hiroshima.
“Suzuki won the game for us tonight with those two homers,” Ogata said. “He had a great season as did our whole team.”
Kuroda (9-8) pitched six innings, allowing three runs on six hits. He struck out four and hit one batter. The 41-year-old veteran’s name rang out across Tokyo Dome on a few occasions as Carp fans showered him with support.
“You play for this kind of moment,” Kuroda said. “We’ve accomplished this as a team and it’s really meaningful to me.”
The Carp were the toast of the CL at one time. All six of the team’s previous pennants came during their golden era from 1975-1991. The club remained somewhat competitive until 1998, the first of 15-straight B-Class finishes. The team finished third in 2013 and 2014, before a fourth-place finish last season.
This year’s Carp put it all together. The team is 15 games ahead of the Giants in the standings and has a club-record 82 victories so far.
“We’ve just been consistent,” said reliever Jay Jackson. “That’s it. Our team has been consistent all year. We’ve played really good ball all year.”
The Carp beat the Giants on Aug. 24 at Tokyo Dome to light their magic number to win the pennant at 20. They went 11-2 over their next 13 games, while the second-place Giants were 5-8 over that same span.
The Carp could’ve clinched the pennant Thursday night, when a win over the Chunichi Dragons dropped their magic number to one. The Giants prevented that with a win over the Hanshin Tigers the same night, and won again Friday, beating the Tokyo Yakult Swallows while the Carp watched from a hotel in Tokyo.
Hiroshima arrived at Tokyo Dome with a chance to end things on Saturday, and the club didn’t come alone.
Carp fans invaded the Big Egg en masse, essentially turning the Giants’ home park into Mazda Stadium Northeast. The visitors’ sections were packed to the brim with red-clad fans and there were pockets of Hiroshima supporters in areas that are Giants territory on normal days. They were loud enough that the contest could’ve easily been mistaken for a Carp home game.
“This is amazing,” said Jackson. “I can’t explain what this means to me, let alone for the fans.”
Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto briefly silenced the visitors with a two-run home run in the bottom of the first.
The Carp struck back in the third. Kosuke Tanaka drew a walk with one out, then sped around the bases and scored when Sakamoto made an error on a ball hit by Ryosuke Kikuchi.
Suzuki led off the fourth with his 25th home run of the season, tying the score at 2-2. Matsuyama untied it on the very next pitch, connecting on a solo homer to right-center that gave the Carp a 3-2 lead.
Suzuki went deep again in the fifth with a man on base to push the lead to three runs.
The Giants got a run back on Takehiro Donoue’s RBI groundout in the bottom of the fifth.
The Carp added to their lead when Tanaka scored from third on an error by first baseman Shinnosuke Abe in the top of the eighth.
Yomiuri pulled a run back in the bottom half of the inning, but couldn’t get any closer.
The Carp planned to celebrate at a nearby hotel, though they’ll have an early wakeup call with a day game scheduled for Sunday at 2 p.m. Bradin Hagens (7-3) is scheduled to get the start. Hayato Takagi (4-8) will pitch for Yomiuri.
“I’ll just enjoy the time with the guys, not get too crazy,” Hagens said of his plan for the night. “We’re going to enjoy this as much as possible, but we realize we still have more to go this season. The ultimate goal is still the Japan Series. At the end of the day, we still want to come out and fight tomorrow.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.
BayStars edge Dragons
Jose Lopez hit a solo homer and Shun Yamaguchi (11-5) scattered seven hits and two walks over eight innings as the Yokohama BayStars defeated the CL rival Chunichi Dragons 1-0 on Saturday, handing them their fourth straight loss.
Swallows 9, Tigers 1
At Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium, Tetsuto Yamada hit three homers to move within one of the CL lead with 38 as Tokyo Yakult bombarded Hanshin, which lost its fourth straight.
Fighters 7, Eagles 4
At Sendai’s Kobo Stadium, slugging ace Shohei Otani again showed his batting prowess with a pair of two-run home runs to propel league-leading Hokkaido Nippon Ham to a victory over Tohoku Rakuten.
Otani blasted his first homer in the third inning, deep into the right-field seats, connecting on rookie Tomohiro Anraku’s 1-1 forkball to make it 3-0.
With the game still in the balance at 5-4 in the sixth, the Fighters’ part-time designated hitter then went deep for two runs against reliever Norihito Kaneto. Otani got a 1-0 fastball running in on his hands and drilled it well over the wall in dead center. It was his 22nd of the season.
“To be able to drive it (that pitch) that far is not normal,” Eagles manager Masataka Nashida said.
Anraku (1-5) allowed five runs — four earned — on seven hits and three walks over five innings and threw 119 pitches, while Nippon Ham’s Anthony Bass (7-8) was credited with the win after two scoreless innings.
Takero Okajima and Carlos Peguero each hit a solo shot in the bottom of the third off Fighters starter Hirotoshi Takanashi as Rakuten kept coming back at the Fighters.
Kensuke Kondo, who opened the scoring in the third with an RBI double, added two runs with two-bagger in the top of the fourth before Rakuten again scored two in the home half.
Lions 7, Hawks 2
At Fukuoka’s Yafuoku Dome, Seibu’s Bryan Wolfe (3-0) allowed two runs in six innings against his former team and Fukuoka SoftBank’s Kodai Senga (12-2) allowed five runs in five innings to take the loss as the Hawks fell 1-1/2 games back of Nippon Ham.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5