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Hawks have look of budding dynasty after latest triumph

by Jason Coskrey

In what has almost become a rite of fall, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks paraded around a field with a banner in tow in celebration of a championship.

This latest triumph came after the Hawks wrapped up the Pacific League Climax Series in emphatic fashion on Sunday afternoon in Fukuoka. With star outfielder and MVP candidate Yuki Yanagita back in the lineup, SoftBank bounced the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles out of the final stage with a series-clinching 7-0 win in Game 5. After dropping the first two games of the series, the PL champion Hawks shook off the cobwebs, having gone from Oct. 8-18 without playing, to win three straight over the plucky third-place Eagles. The Hawks began the series with a one-win advantage as the pennant winner and won the final stage 4-2.

“I’m sure a lot of people counted us out after those first two games,” closer Dennis Sarfate said during the team’s victory news conference after the game. “I knew if we could just get some runs and keep the lead, we were going to be fine. And here we are, champions.”

The Hawks have been the class of the Pacific League, and perhaps Japanese baseball, for years now. So much so, their success has begun to take on a dynastic glint.

If SoftBank goes on to beat either the Hiroshima Carp or Yokohama BayStars in the Japan Series, which begins Saturday night at Yafuoku Dome, it would be hard to argue against them as Japanese baseball’s latest dynasty, the first since the Golden Age Seibu Lions of the ’80s and early ’90s.

The Hawks aren’t in Seibu’s neighborhood yet, but a victory in the Japan Series would give them a third championship in four seasons. Which would be a run not seen since Seibu reeled off six from 1986-92, with a Yomiuri Giants title in 1989 sandwiched between a pair of Lions three-peats. The Tokyo Yakult Swallows were the last to come close, winning four from 1993-2001.

SoftBank already owns three of the Japan Series crowns won since 2011, with the chance at a fourth coming up.

“We still have one step left,” said team captain and final stage MVP Seiichi Uchikawa. “We lost at this stage last year. Our goal was the be the best in Japan, and our manager has always been telling us that. Looking toward the Japan Series, I think we have a little time to refresh and also make some adjustments.”

They’re going to be hard to bet against, no matter the opponent.

SoftBank’s Alfredo Despaigne and Yanagita each surpassed 30 home runs, hitting 35 and 31 respectively, while Nobuhiro Matsuda hit 24. As a team, SoftBank led Japan with 164 home runs and was third with 638 runs scored.

No NPB pitching staff had a lower ERA than SoftBank’s 3.22, led by Nao Higashihama (16-5) and Kodai Senga (13-4), who put up matching 2.64 ERAs. Then there’s the bullpen, which boasts arms such as Yudai Mori, Shota Iwasaki, and Livan Moinelo, among others, even before getting to “The King of Closer” Sarfate, who set an NPB single-season record with 54 saves and struck out 102 in 66 innings.

“They’re really special,” Sarfate said of the team’s other relievers. “To be a part of that group, to see how some of these guys have stepped up this year, I’m impressed with them every time. The pressure never gets to them. We have a good group. I think we’re ready for this Japan Series.”

The Hawks would be favored against the BayStars, while a matchup against the Carp would be intriguing to say the least. Hiroshima boasts a similarly strong offense, with an NPB-best 736 runs scored, and also has a solid pitching staff. The Carp, however, would likely be without the injured Seiya Suzuki, one of their top offensive stars.

Overall, SoftBank has been almost without equal lately. Since 2010, the team has won five pennants and three Japan Series titles, with a chance to add to the latter total coming up. If they’re successful, it might be time to look at an already dominant franchise, one that doesn’t look like it’s slowing down much, in an even better light.