Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Hawks capture Pacific League pennant

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

There shouldn’t have been any questions about which team was the best in the Pacific League this season.

Still, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks went out and made it official just in case.

Yuki Yanagita hit a two-run home run in the fourth and had an RBI double during SoftBank’s four-run fifth, and pitcher Dennis Sarfate handed the winning ball to club chairman Sadaharu Oh after the Hawks beat the Seibu Lions 7-3 on Saturday at MetLife Dome to clinch the 2017 Pacific League pennant.

“I’m relieved,” said Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo, who teared up after the game. “We came up short last year, and we’ve been playing to make up for that all year.”

The Hawks are PL champions for the third time in the last four years. It’s the franchise’s 20th league title overall, including two in the single league era. Winning on Saturday also set a record for the earliest (by one day) the pennant has been clinched.

They thought they should’ve won the title last season. The club entered July of 2016 in first place but were chased down by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, the eventual pennant winners. This time, once the Hawks passed the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and built up a lead, they weren’t about to let it get away.

“We came back strong,” Sarfate said. “We proved it to everyone. Last year, we stunk, but we made up for it and this year we’re strong. We clinched a lot earlier than people thought. I think a lot of people thought the Eagles were going to win it early on, but we came back and it just shows you how good we are as a team.”

There was no doubting SoftBank’s strength this year. The Hawks got off to a average start as Rakuten streaked ahead, but quickly began to flex their considerable muscle. The Hawks were two games above .500 at the end of April. Saturday’s win put them 48 games over.

“Our players did their jobs without complaint, even though I asked a lot from them throughout fall camp, spring camp and preseason games,” Kudo said. “That has paid off.”

On Saturday, Yanagita hit his 30th home run of the season and drove in three runs on a 2-for-5 day. Cuban slugger Alfredo Despaigne finished with two hits, a solo homer to straightaway center, his 33rd of the year, and a two-run single. Kenta Imamiya also drove in a run for SoftBank.

Winning pitcher Nao Higashihama held the Lions in check for most of his six-inning outing. Higashihama allowed one run on only two hits, one being Hotaka Yamakawa’s home run, and struck out nine. He improved to 16-4, giving him the most wins in NPB this season.

Sarfate, who has an NPB single-season record 51 saves, closed out the PL pennant race in a non-save situation in the ninth. He allowed a pair of runs before it was over, but that was the furthest thing from his mind afterward.

“It’s all I had left,” Sarfate said. “Give up two runs, yeah it sucks, but we finished the job, got three outs. That’s the happiest I’ve ever been giving up two runs.”

When it was over, he handed the ball to Oh.

“How can you not give it to him?” Sarfate asked. “When you come off the field and you see a legend like Mr. Oh, you gotta give him the ball. This organization prides itself on winning, and a winning attitude, and he’s definitely the start of it.”

The sight of the team celebrating a pennant was a familiar one for Seibu. The Hawks became the third straight team, following the 2015 edition and 2016 Fighters, to clinch the PL title with a win over the Lions. The Fighters also did it in Tokorozawa.

Yamakawa hit a solo homer for Seibu, and Shuta Tonosaki finished with two RBIs.

Starter Ryoma Nogami (9-10) took the loss after allowing six runs on eight hits in 4 1/3 innings.

Yamakawa gave him an early lead with his leadoff homer in the second.

It was all SoftBank from that point.

Yanagita followed Akira Nakamura’s one-out single in the fourth with his two-run shot to put Softbank ahead 2-1.

A leadoff single by Tomoki Takata and a sacrifice bunt set the table for Imamiya in fifth, and he drove in a run with a single. Nakamura followed with a single, and Yanagita doubled in another run. Despaigne stepped to the plate with runners on second and third and hit a ball through the right side to drive in two, as the lead ballooned to 6-1.

Despaigne added another run with his homer in the seventh.

The Lions put runners on the corners with two outs in the ninth, and Tonosaki made the score look nicer with a two-run single before Sarfate closed things out.

While the Hawks won’t play another game of consequence (for them) until the final stage of the Climax Series begins Oct. 18, the Lions are still in a battle for second place with the Eagles. Seibu has a 2 1/2-game lead in that race.

SoftBank can now look toward the postseason.

“We’ve achieved one dream,” Kudo said. “We owe this to our fans. We appreciate it. But our ultimate goal is to regain the Japan Series title. When we decided on our slogan for this year, ‘Wonderful,’ that’s something I personally swore to myself as well.”