Yokohama BayStars manager Alex Ramirez is fond of saying that it’s not how you start, but how you finish. It’s one of his most well-worn axioms actually.
The second-year skipper can give his favorite saying a few more spins this season, because his BayStars aren’t finished in 2017 quite yet. After walloping the Hiroshima Carp 9-3 in Game 5 of the Central League Climax Series Final Stage on Tuesday, wrapping up an improbable 4-2 series victory with four straight wins, Ramirez’s BayStars are headed to the Japan Series for a date with the Pacific League’s Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.
Yokohama is the first third-place team in CL history to win the Climax Series, which the league co-opted from the PL in 2007.
“We never put our heads down,” Ramirez said during the team’s victory news conference after Game 5. “Even though we lost the first game, we were down 2-0, we kept fighting. Our fighting spirit was always there.”
The BayStars haven’t tasted this type of success since manager Hiroshi Gondo’s “Machine Gun Dasen” helped win the Japan Series in 1998. Yokohama being back in the title series is a remarkable feat for a team that went from 2002 until this year without a winning season, and had 10 last-place finishes during that span.
“We’re very happy to be able to win this year,” Ramirez said. “We have a very young team, but they have very good heart for the game. That’s the reason we were able to win. I’d like to say thanks to the organization for believing in us.”
Yokohama’s turnaround was years in the making, the result of playing the long game on two fronts over several seasons. The foundation stretches back to just before the 2012 season, when DeNA Co., Ltd., an IT company, took control of the team from Tokyo Broadcasting System.
Led by former team president Jun Ikeda, the front office immediately put in motion an aggressive, ambitious, and ultimately successful plan to lure fans back to Yokohama Stadium through various forms of fan service. The BayStars had an average attendance of 27,880 this season. The figure was 26,933 last season and just 15,308 in 2011.
Once the fans were back, the club focused on giving them a reason to stay by improving the product on the field. In concert with general manager Shigeru Takada, who was the GM for the 2006 and 2007 Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters teams that won two PL pennants and the 2006 Japan Series, the BayStars put together a team they hoped would one day be successful. After four seasons (2012-2015) of Kiyoshi Nakahata managing the team, the BayStars turned to Ramirez to finish the job.
On Wednesday night, everything came to a head. Ikeda’s work shone in the 23,910 fans (according to Nikkan Sports) who poured into Yokohama Stadium for a public viewing of Game 5, and the team itself gave them plenty to cheer about.
“I think this is what the fans have been waiting on the most,” said slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo. “Because of that, I want to try my best to finish on top.”
Past star players such as Seiichi Uchikawa and Shuichi Murata had to leave Yokohama to find success. Uchikawa joined the Hawks in 2011 and has won three Japan Series crowns in Fukuoka, and will return to Yokohama as the SoftBank captain during the Japan Series. Murata bolted in 2012 and won with the Yomiuri Giants that same season.
Yokohama’s current stars don’t have to go anywhere for their shot at glory. Tsutsugo, who hit a pair of home runs in Game 5, Jose Lopez, the final stage MVP, Takayuki Kajitani and the rest can win it for themselves right where they are.
The BayStars still have work to do to become a consistent force in the CL. This trip to the Japan Series is actually probably a little ahead of schedule for the third-place club, evidenced by the 14½-game gap between them and the Carp in the final league standings.
There is still work to do this year, but as the team sprayed beer on each other in Hiroshima late Tuesday night, the finish line looked closer than ever.