FUKUOKA – The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and Yokohama BayStars had two very different paths to Game 1 of the Japan Series.
The Hawks rampaged to 94-49 record, won this season’s interleague title (with a 12-6 mark), and claimed the Pacific League pennant, their third in four seasons, by 13½ games.
Yokohama, meanwhile, was the third place team in the Central League, finishing 73-65-5, just two games better than the fourth-place Yomiuri Giants and 14½ games behind the pennant-winning Hiroshima Carp.
The Hawks outscored their opponents 638-483. The BayStars were outscored 598-597.
It’s a matchup that doesn’t look close on paper. The BayStars, however, have already proven everyone wrong by going through the Hanshin Tigers and Carp in CL Climax Series. Do it once more, and the team will be crowned champions of Japan for only the third time in franchise history.
“Very happy to be here, especially since a lot of people didn’t expect us to get to this point,” Yokohama manager Alex Ramirez said before Game 1 on Saturday. “Losing the first game in Koshien (against Hanshin) down two games in Hiroshima, being here, this is amazing.”
That run through the playoffs means the BayStars have the Hawks’ full attention.
“It’s impressive to do what they did,” said Hawks closer Dennis Sarfate during Friday’s practice. “To finish in third place and go to Hanshin and win in that tough environment and then to go to Hiroshima and face the best team in the Central League and beat them pretty easily. It just shows that they’re a strong team.”
Sarfate, however, remained supremely confident in his own ballclub.
“You look at us, we had 94 wins, no one really gave us a problem except for those first two games against the Eagles we kind of got a scare,” he said, referring the team’s two losses to the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles to open the final stage of the PL Climax Series. “We’re strong. So I think you’re going to see the best of both teams.”
For many fans, the BayStars have worn the underdog tag during the postseason. That, however, is not an opinion shared in the Yokohama clubhouse.
“I feel like we’re underdogs to the media,” said pitcher Joe Wieland, who started and earned wins against both the Tigers and Carp during the postseason. “We’ve played those two teams really well all year. We’re the only team that could beat Hiroshima (the BayStars were the only team with a winning record against the Carp this season). I was saying it basically three months ago: you get us to the playoffs, and we’re going to make it to the Japan Series.”
The BayStars entered the Japan Series confident, riding a wave of momentum and ready to shock the baseball world again.
“We played good baseball back in Hiroshima,” Ramirez said. “This team (SoftBank) is no less than Hiroshima. This team is even better than Hiroshima. Looking at the (Yokohama) guys, they look pretty good. I think they still have the momentum that we had from before.”
They’ll need all of it against a Hawks team that’s not lacking in confidence either.
“We just gotta play our game,” Sarfate said. “We need our starters to do what they’ve done all year. We need hitters to come through with timely hitting and some power and our bullpen just needs to do the same thing they did in the Climax Series. We’re a strong enough team, everyone knows how good we are.
“I firmly believe we have the best starting rotation, the best bullpen and the best lineup in the league. If we go out there and play the way we’re capable of playing, it should be in our favor.”
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