Baseball / Japanese Baseball | HIT AND RUN

Masterful Hawks again soar over baseball rivals

by Jason Coskrey

At the end of another NPB season, the Japanese baseball world is again wondering how to beat these Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.

After Saturday night’s dramatic 11-inning 4-3 sayonara victory over the Yokohama BayStars in Game 6 of the Japan Series clinched another title, the dynastic Hawks once again secured their place at the top of the Japanese baseball pecking order.

They won 94 games this year, reaching 90 for the second time in three seasons. The Pacific League pennant they won by 13½ games was their fifth since 2010, and this latest Japan Series triumph was their fourth over the same span.

Not that this one came easy. After taking what seemed to be a commanding 3-0 lead in the series, the Hawks had to absorb the BayStars’ best shot for the next three games.

In Game 6, it took a gritty three-inning relief effort from Japan Series MVP Dennis Sarfate, a ninth-inning home run by team captain Seiichi Uchikawa and a walk-off single in the 11th inning by Keizo Kawashima, whom Sarfate urged to go “be the hero,” in order to put away the BayStars.

“To be honest, my mind went blank, and then I realized we just won the Japan Series,” manager Kimiyasu Kudo said. “In an instant, everything we went through, including the tough times, was playing out in my mind, and I had tears in my eyes. But we’ve done it, and I’m thankful the players were able to make it happen.”

SoftBank pulled it out, but it was a closer call than most expected.

The Hawks won in a rout in Game 1 and won tighter contests in Games 2 and 3. Then, all of a sudden, the BayStars were back. Yokohama won the next two games and swaggered into Yafuoku Dome for Game 6 confident and ready to force a Game 7.

“Tough team, the BayStars,” Sarfate said. “They came in as the third seed and they gave us a run for our money.”

The BayStars’ left-handers had flummoxed the Hawks all series. Shota Imanaga struck out 10 in six innings in Game 2, rookie Haruhiro Hamaguchi threw up 7⅓ no-hit innings in Game 4 and Kenta Ishida was shaky but didn’t get blown away in Game 5.

Imanaga struck out 11 more Hawks in Game 6, and despite being charged with a pair of runs over seven-plus innings, was in line for the victory until Uchikawa’s homer off closer Yasuaki Yamasaki in the ninth tied the score at 3-3.

“Even though we ended up winning, we were thoroughly beaten by their left-handed pitchers,” Uchikawa said.

With one of the more epic collapses in Japan Series history on the verge of becoming a real possibility, SoftBank found a way. After Uchikawa gave the team new life in the ninth, the crowd at Yafuoku Dome roared back to life and got louder and louder with each out Sarfate racked up in the 10th and 11th.

“They were the best fans,” Sarfate said. “They support us on the road, at home. I knew once we got home, they were going to be loud. When I came off that mound after that third inning, they got so loud, and I knew we had a chance.”

It took the Hawks everything they had to beat Yokohama. Leadoff hitter Yuki Yanagita got them off to a good start in almost every game, shortstop Kenta Imamiya flew around the field making highlight-reel plays, including a twisting, mid-air catch that sent him tumbling into the stands in Yokohama. He also scored what might have been the pivotal run of the series, beating the tag and touching home plate with the “Finger of God” to score the go-ahead run in Game 2. He was called out of the play, before the call was overturned on replay.

From Hiroaki Takaya to Uchikawa to Akira Nakamura and the SoftBank pitchers, the Hawks simply had too much.

BayStars manager Alex Ramirez said SoftBank was a complete team.

He’s right. They’re the most complete team in Japan, and it’s going to be quite a task to stop them over the next couple of years.