Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Fighters live up to name in claiming Japan Series title

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

The Hokkaido Ham Fighters’ never-say-die attitude culminated in a Japan Series title on Saturday night in Hiroshima.

Hideki Kuriyama lauded his team’s resilience after Nippon Ham clinched its third title in franchise history with a 10-4 win over the Hiroshima Carp in Game 6.

During the regular season, the Fighters were down, but not out, in the Pacific League pennant race. They erased what was once an 11½-game deficit to the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks to win the league title, and used the perks they earned to beat the Hawks again in the Climax Series.

“I said it when we won the league championship, we had such a tough season, but we didn’t give up, even though we had a huge deficit to overcome, and we made it all the way here, said Kuriyama. “We grew a little in every single game.”

Never give up, never give in, never say die.

The Fighters lived by that creed, united in the belief no mountain was so high it couldn’t be scaled.

So when Nippon Ham faced adversity in the form of a Carp team that held a 2-0 lead in the Japan Series, and was looking as if it might snatch a third in Sapporo behind veteran pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, there was no panic. The Fighters rallied to win Game 3 in 10 innings, and just kept on winning.

“The two games we lost and the games in Sapporo, those could’ve gone either way,” Kuriyama said.

Game 6 could’ve as well, until the Fighters finally scored a KO in the eighth inning.

The score was tied at 4-4 when Nippon Ham strung together three two-out singles to load the bases. From there, Sho Nakata drew a walk, reliever Anthony Bass drove in a run and Brandon Laird hit a grand slam. All of a sudden, the Fighters were up 10-4 and their hard work was six outs away from paying off.

Nippon Ham’s triumph required the contributions of a number of players. That was no more apparent than in the bullpen, where the relievers stepped up to face down the Carp hitters, who as a group were statistically the best in Japan.

“It’s a humbling experience to be down there,” said Bass, who was chosen as one of the outstanding players of the series. “There’s a lot of great pitchers in the bullpen. We picked each other up all series long. I was just fortunate enough to kind of have, if you want to say the hot hand, but it’s been a fun season.

“Credit to the Carp’s bullpen, they’ve been lock-down all year. They’ve got a great bullpen. It’s just we got things going our way at the end. Everyone’s just kind of been doing their job.”

With the bullpen keeping things close, the Fighters eventually found the big hits they needed. Shohei Otani came up with the first, a walk-off single in Game 3. Then it was Laird hitting a two-run homer in the eighth inning of Game 4. Those two hits came after game-tying hits by Sho Nakata. Then in Game 5, Haruki Nishikawa put Nippon Ham in the driver’s seat with a sayonara grand slam.

Before the series, all the focus was on Otani, who had an 11-strikeout performance, though while allowing three runs, in Game 1 (his only appearance on the mound) and finished the series with four doubles among his six hits at the plate.

Otani played a role, but it was the sum of the Fighters’ parts, coming through in big moments, that added up.

The Fighters simply made more plays when it counted. There was Luis Mendoza throwing five heroic innings of relief in Game 5, and Bass shining in each of his appearances to the tune of three wins. When the Fighters needed big hits at home, Nakata was there to deliver, and third-base coach Kazuyuki Shirai’s call to send Kensuke Tanaka home on Hiromi Oka’s shallow sacrifice fly to tie Game 5 in the seventh inning was among the most pivotal of the series. And those were just the tip of the iceberg.

Kuriyama preached belief after the game. The Fighters always believed the turning point was right around the corner, and four out of six times in this Japan Series it was.

They believed in one another, and believed that together there was no deficit that couldn’t be overcome.

As it turns out, as the Hawks and Carp can both attest to, that turned out to be true, and the Fighters now have the titles to prove it.

“This is a young team and we had to move forward together and we could not have won unless each one of us grew,” Kuriyama said. “So even though we became the best in Japan, we still have a long way to go. We are going to keep moving forward from tomorrow.”

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