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BayStars beaten but unbowed after Japan Series experience

by Jason Coskrey

After the final out of the Japan Series, as the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks celebrated while glittering, golden confetti rained down from the Yafuoku Dome ceiling and jet balloons were set loose from the stands, Yokohama BayStars pitcher Shota Imanaga soaked it all in from the losing dugout.

The scene was at once disappointing and motivating.

“I tried to get a vivid image of the Hawks celebrating,” Imanaga said later. “Because I was so disappointed and I hoped we’d be back next year and be the ones in that position.”

The BayStars came up short in the Japan Series, falling 4-3 in 11 innings in Game 6, having been just two outs from forcing a Game 7 in the ninth inning.

The teams parted ways for the final time after the postgame ceremony. The Hawks, jubilant, ran off to continue their celebrations. The BayStars headed back through the hallway at Yafuoku Dome, toward the team bus, disappointed but with heads held high and looking toward the future.

“This is what we are, and we have to accept that and try to do better next year,” closer Yasuaki Yamasaki said.

Manager Alex Ramirez refused to classify their trip to the Japan Series, the franchise’s first since 1998, as a losing effort. He praised his players’ zeal on the field and the fight they showed to battle back from a 3-0 deficit in the series to nearly force a final game.

“We did our best,” Ramirez said. I’m not going to say this or that was missing. “We did our best . . . and we had them.

“They’re a good team. We gotta give them credit. They (won) 94 games during the regular season and especially at home (SoftBank was 52-20 at home during the regular season). They had everything. We did everything we could.”

Ramirez told his players afterward it was a wonderful season, and he was right. Their 73 wins this year was their most since 1998, and they made consecutive trips to the Climax Series for the first time.

After finishing third in the Central League, few had the BayStars even making it to the Japan Series. Fewer gave them a fighting chance against the Hawks.

Once the BayStars were down 3-0, it was even money whether a survey of only family and friends would’ve even given them much chance of getting the series back to Fukuoka for Game 6. The BayStars not only made it back, winning two straight, but came within two outs of forcing the series to go the distance.

“Every pitch from their pitchers and swing from their batters was intense,” Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo said. “Manager Ramirez really developed a great team.

“To be honest, somewhere in my mind, I thought maybe we would go to a seventh game. But I pushed that thought deep down, and we tried to clinch it today.”

Yokohama heads into the offseason with a lot of positives to build upon once the disappointment dissipates a little.

“We gained a lot of experience through this series, said star slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo. “I am sure this experience will help our development. We are going to have to aim for the league championship. We will have to regroup and get to work to realize that.”

Having gotten a taste of the Japan Series, it’s back to the drawing board for the BayStars.

First of all, they want to win the Central League pennant, something they haven’t done since 1998. Yokohama had to get to the Japan Series the hard way this year, going through the CL Climax Series, and upsetting the Hanshin Tigers and league champion Hiroshima Carp, as the third-place team. Winning the pennant would make the road easier. They already have a good group of players in place. Jose Lopez and Tsutsugo are big bats in the lineup and there is talent around them with players such as leadoff man Masayuki Kuwahara, batting champion Toshiro Miyazaki and Takayuki Kajitani.

Two of their young lefty pitchers shined during the series, and should take a lot of confidence from that into next season. Imanaga made two appearances, pitching 13-plus innings and striking out 21 while allowing three runs. Rookie southpaw Haruhiro Hamaguchi took a no-hitter into the eighth inning of Game 4.

Closer Yamasaki, who allowed a game-tying home run to Seiichi Uchikawa in the ninth, is also ready to try to help the team get further in the near future.

“This is baseball and anything can happen,” he said. “You either win or lose. I went in to try and win. Hopefully I’ll be able to give my best next year.”

Even through the mist of their disappointment, the BayStars are looking ahead, hopeful this year’s thrilling run was only the foundation of something bigger.

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report