Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Dramatic Series ride for SoftBank

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks wrapped up the Japan Series against the Hiroshima Carp on Saturday at Mazda Stadium, achieving back-to-back NPB championships with a 2-0 Game 6 win.

The Pacific League club did not win away in the series’ first two games, but proved that it was a cut above the Carp, who were desperately looking for their first Japan Series crown in 34 years.

Here are the key moments in each game that divided the winners and losers in the 2018 NPB title series.

Game 1

The series between two high-octane offenses kicked off in a low-scoring fashion and ended in a 2-2 tie after playing 12 innings.

While it’s often hard to name a man of the match in a draw, Hawks catchers Takuya Kai and Hiroaki Takaya’s arms prevented the Carp from using their mobility.

Kai and Takaya threw first-base runners out at second base in the ninth and 11th innings, respectively, to retire the sides, ruining significant scoring chances for Hiroshima.

Kai’s ability to catch runners out is particularly notable. The 25-year-old former development player has capitalized on his quick release and accuracy to throw base-stealers out in 44.7 percent of his attempts, by far the best of NPB catchers this year.

Kai did not allow a single steal in the five games against the Seibu Lions, who had the most stolen bases in the 12 clubs with 132, in the Pacific League Climax Stage.

In the Japan Series opener, too, Kai’s “cannon” was an effective weapon for the Kyushu team, stifling the Carp and their CL-best 95 stolen bases this season.

It was Kai’s ability behind the home plate that eventually made him the series Most Valuable Player.

Game 2

With lefty Kris Johnson on the mound for the Carp and Seiichi Uchikawa absent from the Hawks roster after being hit in the leg by a Game 1 pitch, SoftBank skipper Kimiyasu Kudo rotated four position players for Game 2: Keizo Kawashima, Kenta Imamiya, Alfredo Despaigne and Nobuhiro Matsuda.

But the decision did not work and resulted in defensive miscues for the Hawks.

In the top of the first, left fielder Despaigne, who usually serves as a designated hitter, failed to catch a shallow fly ball hit by Carp leadoff man Kosuke Tanaka, who went on to score a run in the frame.

In the third, second baseman Kawashima misthrew to second in a double-play attempt. Hiroshima capitalized on a chance to seize the momentum and added two more runs.

The three runs scored off those erratic plays, plus a sharp performance by Johnson who allowed just four hits and one run in seven innings, weighed heavily on the Hawks, who ended up losing 5-1.

Game 3

At Yafuoku Dome, the Hawks survived the Carp’s late surge in a 9-8 battle on home turf.

Consecutive innings in which SoftBank added runs from two outs wound up being key to the team’s first series victory.

With the Hawks up 4-3, Hiroshima’s Akitake Okada relieved starter Aren Kuri at the beginning of the sixth inning. The right-hander looked sharp and quickly got two outs. But he allowed Kenji Akashi a Texas Leaguer to left, which gave life to SoftBank. Okada then gave up four runs on a Yuki Yanagita RBI single and Despaigne’s three-run homer.

Another Carp reliever, Ren Nakata, also cruised to get two outs in the next inning before yielding a solo homer — eventually the vital game-winning run — to Hawks catcher Hiroaki Takaya.

Game 4

One night after nearly blowing a six-run lead, four Hawks relievers — Livan Moinelo, Shota Takeda, Shinya Kayama and closer Yuito Mori — exhibited a stellar no-hit performance to silence the Carp attack in their 4-1 win.

Left-handed sidearmer Kayama especially stood out against Hiroshima hitters. The 28-year-old was sent to the hill in the eighth inning and completely held the Carp’s fearful “Tana-Kiku-Maru” (Kosuke Tanaka, Ryosuke Kikuchi and Yoshihiro Maru) trio with his nastily-angled pitches.

Showing none of the struggles they exhibited in Game 3, the Hawks relievers shut the Carp offense down and put the Fukuoka outfit in the driver’s seat of the series.

Game 5

Superstar slugger Yuki Yanagita ended another long night with his sayonara homer in the bottom of the 10th to mark the last game of the year at Yafuoku with a 5-4 Hawks win.

But Kenji Akashi was another hero in the key victory.

The Carp broke a 3-3 tie with a solo homer by Tsubasa Aizawa in the sixth. But Akashi used his veteran experience and blasted a gopher slider off Hiroshima’s hard-throwing lefty Geronimo Franzua for a game-equalizing solo dinger in the seventh.

“(Franzua) basically has a fastball and slider,” said the 32-year-old Akashi after the game. “If he had another, I would’ve had a different approach. But I saw the pitch started biting (and thought it was a slider).”

Game 6

The Hawks took advantage of a few scoring opportunities with a little bit of a small-ball approach to conclude the series with a 2-0 win.

In the fourth inning, SoftBank had two runners with no outs and skipper Kudo ordered a sac bunt from star Seiichi Uchikawa, which the former MVP masterfully made. One hitter later, Tetsuro Nishida successfully laid a squeeze bunt off Carp starter Johnson to open scoring.

That ended up being the game-winning run for the Hawks, whose four hurlers, including starter Rick van den Hurk, completely shut out Hiroshima’s arsenal.

The Carp were less successful in their bunt attempts, with Ryosuke Kikuchi flying out to the pitcher in the first inning.

With all six contests ending in margins of four runs or fewer, the Hawks’ supremacy allowed them a fourth NPB title in five years.