Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Hawks’ Kenji Akashi displays patience, poise in biggest moments

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks have so many star players that second baseman Kenji Akashi can get lost in the shuffle.

He doesn’t have Yuki Yanagita’s overwhelming talent, nor is he a venerated veteran like Seiichi Uchikawa, a member of the 2,000-hit club, or the human ball of kinetic energy that is Nobuhiro Matsuda.

Akashi, a veteran who has been with the franchise since its Daiei days, is just one of the guys who seems to step up in big moments to help keep the SoftBank machine humming along.

That was case in Game 5 of the Japan Series on Thursday night at Yafuoku Dome, with Akashi playing a role in a 5-4 victory that gave SoftBank a 3-1 lead in the series. Yanagita won all the headlines with his sayonara home run in the 10th inning, but the moment may never have come if not for Akashi’s veteran batting eye.

The Hawks were behind by a run and on their heels when Akashi came to the plate to face Hiroshima Carp fireballer Geronimo Franzua in the seventh inning. Franzua’s calling card is his fastball, which averaged 150.4 kph during the season. On Thursday, he was slinging the ball to the plate at 155 kph at times.

“He basically has a four-seam fastball and a slider,” Akashi said after the game. “I was thinking that at one point I might get a (slider) in a hittable location.”

It took seven pitches — including four fastballs at 154 or above — for Akashi to get his pitch. Akashi drew a walk against Franzua in Game 1 and had an idea of what he’d face during Thursday’s at-bat.

“It was either fastball or slider,” he said. “If he had another pitch, it might have been different, though. But the last time I faced him, when I was pinch-hitting, he only threw me fastballs.

“But when I saw the ball breaking and coming in about shoulder level, I swung at it.”

The result was a solo shot to right field that gave Akashi his first homer of the series and tied the game at 4-4.

“I’m lucky,” Akashi told Kazuto Fujiura of Full-Count.com. “I was able to hit it well.”

Akashi has three hits and four walks in 18 plate appearances during the series. He’s also been solid in the field at second base and made one of the pivotal plays in the Hawks’ 4-1 win in Game 4.

With the speedy Ryosuke Kikuchi trying to score from first in the opening frame of that contest, Akashi received Yanagita’s throw from center field and fluidly turned and fired home, where Kikuchi was tagged out at the plate. Starter Nao Higashihama and manager Kimiyasu Kudo each later said the play was a key part in the Hawks eventually getting out to an early lead.

Kudo said after Game 5, in response to Akashi calling his home run a miracle when he returned to the dugout, that the infielder’s mindset and refusal to ever give up is what led to the big hit.

As the series shifts to Hiroshima for Game 6, Akashi is looking keeping doing his part to help SoftBank secure another Japan Series crown.

The Hawks only need to win once the rest of the way to claim the title and will likely face pitcher Kris Johnson, who tossed seven innings of one-run ball in a winning effort in Game 2, on Saturday.

“Johnson is going to be on the other side,” Fujiura quoted Akashi as saying. “But we have momentum, and Johnson will have the pressure of not being able to lose.”