Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Hawks finally prevail after epic Japan Series

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks wrapped up the 2017 Japan Series at Yafuoku Dome on Saturday by capturing their eighth overall title — fourth in the last seven years — after defeating the Yokohama BayStars in a hard-fought Game 6.

The matchup between the Pacific League powerhouse and the heavy underdog BayStars, who made a stunning postseason run as the Central League’s No. 3 seed, produced a series of competitive and entertaining battles.

Here are the key moments of each contest in this year’s best-of-seven series.

Game 1

In Fukuoka, the Hawks had a big inning in the fifth, scoring seven runs on RBI hits by Yuki Yanagita and Kenta Imamiya. That ensured an eventual 10-1 win for them.

But what was more significant was the fact that they were able to get on the board quickly, driving in three runs in the first two innings and removing the players’ opening-game jitters.

Yanagita set the tone for the Kyushu club with a leadoff single and scored on an Alfredo Despaigne RBI hit to strike first against Yokohama. Yanagita was 2-for-3 with two RBIs and also got on base on a hit-by-pitch.

“I’ve got to say, Yanagita’s hit in the first inning was huge for us,” SoftBank manager Kimiyasu Kudo said after the game. “When we have a leadoff hitter on base, we can play at our own pace. And while everybody gets nervous in the first game of the series, he sent a message to his teammates that they can do it.”

Game 2

In Fukuoka, one day after being routed, the BayStars put up a much closer challenge yet were saddled with another defeat, ending up on the wrong end of a controversial call.

Trailing 3-1, the Hawks scored a run on a Yuki Yanagita RBI single in the seventh. Akira Nakamura then drove home two runners to give the Hawks the lead.

The second of the two runners, Kenta Imamiya, was originally called out at home. But after a video replay, the call was reversed and the game-winning run appeared on the scoreboard.

The Hawks beat the BayStars 4-3 to get off to a back-to-back winning start to the series.

“I had never slid head-first (in my career), but you don’t have an option it in that situation,” Imamiya said of his phenomenal base-running in the seventh.

Game 3

In Yokohama, the Hawks put themselves one win away from the championship with a 3-2 victory. They once again came through in a close contest, capitalizing on their bullpen.

Down 3-1 in the sixth, Yokohama had a one-out, bases-loaded situation. But the BayStars were not able to take advantage, scoring just one run which eventually cost them the game.

Kudo gave up on his starter, Shota Takeda, who wasn’t sharp, during the fifth inning, and went with his high-quality relief corps.

A total of six Hawks relievers, including fireman Dennis Sarfate, allowed just three hits and one run in 4⅔ innings and helped the team come away with the win.

Catcher Hiroaki Takaya contributed as well. He killed two stolen bases in the first inning and drive in two runs with an RBI single in the fourth.

Game 4

In Yokohama, with their backs against the wall, the BayStars finally earned their first series “W” behind rookie southpaw Haruhiro Hamaguchi’s stellar performance in a 6-0 win.

Hamaguchi effectively mixed up his fastball, changeup and forkball to deceive the Hawks hitters. The 22-year-old Kyushu native did not allow a hit for the first 7⅓ innings and ended up allowing two hits to silence the opponents.

Also, the BayStars offense clicked later in the game and scored all six runs after the fifth. This year’s CL batting champion, Toshiro Miyazaki, and catcher Shuto Takajo had three hits apiece and collected two and three RBIs, respectively.

“I was under pressure,” Hamaguchi said. “But it isn’t over yet for us, and I tried to pitch so that it wouldn’t end today.”

Game 5

In Yokohama, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo lived up his billing as the BayStars’ biggest batting star to guide his team to a 5-4 win.

The 25-year-old smacked a go-ahead two-run homer off Hawks starter Rick van den Hurk in the fourth. The BayStars give up a 4-2 lead after that, but Tsutsugo came through again and drove in a run with a double followed by a Miyazaki game-tying RBI single in the sixth.

In the same inning, Yokohama took the lead on an error by Hawks second baseman Kenji Akashi, who fumbled the ball on a Yasutaka Tobashira grounder as he was hurrying to get a double play.

Closer Yasuaki Yamasaki survived a bases-loaded situation to get a four-out save to end the game and send the series back to Fukuoka.

“After I hit the homer, we let the Hawks regain the lead,” Tsutsugo said. “So it was more valuable that we scored the runs in the sixth, setting the table with a team effort.”

Game 6

In Fukuoka, the BayStars looked set to force a decisive Game 7 with their left-handed starter Shota Imanaga showcasing his splendid pitching and his teammates giving him run support.

But the mighty Hawks scored two runs in the last two innings of regulation and Keizo Kawashima came up with a Japan Series-clinching walk-off hit in the bottom of the 11th to seal the deal with a 4-3 victory.

While closer Sarfate worked for three innings from the ninth and was named series MVP afterward, cleanup hitter and captain Seiichi Uchikawa came through to prove why he is one of the best hitters in Japanese baseball.

The 35-year-old Uchikawa nicely scooped an inside two-seamer off Yokohama closer Yasuaki Yamasaki for a game-tying homer from one out in the ninth to send the contest into extra innings.

Uchikawa’s blast was a complete momentum changer and gave the Hawks the chance to eventually win the contest and the championship banner.

Uchikawa hit four homers in the Pacific League Climax Series Final Stage against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and was named Climax Series MVP. But he humbly said that he is “not the type of player that hits a lot of home runs.”

“But I hit it when our team needed it most,” Uchikawa said.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5