Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Hawks rule the roost with dominating NPB title run

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

In the moments after the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks clinched their second consecutive Japan Series title on Saturday, club chairman Sadaharu Oh was asked for his thoughts about this year’s team.

Oh’s words hold more weight than most in Japanese baseball. He’s a living legend, owner of the world record for home runs (868) and a man who won the Japan Series 11 times himself, including a run of nine straight, with the Yomiuri Giants.

“They were strong,” Oh said. “There really isn’t anything else to say about them.”

The 11 other NPB clubs can surely attest to that by now.

Yet another season ended with the Hawks throwing their manager into the air after the team beat the Hiroshima Carp 2-0 in Game 6 to wrap up the 2018 Japan Series on the road at Mazda Stadium.

Rick van den Hurk struck out 10 over six shutout innings, Tetsuro Nishida laid down a successful squeeze bunt and Yurisbel Gracial homered in the win.

SoftBank won each of the last four games and took the series 4-1 (following a Game 1 tie) to add yet another chapter to its current dynasty with a fourth title in five seasons.

“It’s amazing to play for this organization,” Van den Hurk said. “For me, now in my fourth year, this is the third time I got an opportunity to pitch in the Japan Series, this series I got to (pitch) twice.

“It’s super special every time you’re out there and able to compete at this level at this stage of a season. It’s the goal we set during spring training, Then at the end of the season, you get here and you win it all, that is amazing.”

The strength Oh spoke of has been on display for the past several seasons. There’s no overall phase of the game where the Hawks have a glaring weakness and their depth is even more pronounced in the postseason.

The Hawks got more timely hitting than the Carp and, with the exception of Games 2 and 3, mostly pitched better. SoftBank was much better defensively, with the Carp even suffering some rare miscues from their middle infield duo of second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi and shortstop Kosuke Tanaka.

Even missing shortstop Kenta Imamiya and slugger Alfredo Despaigne for parts of the series couldn’t slow down SoftBank.

“Even though they had some injured players, they still played with the same fire,” Carp manager Koichi Ogata said of SoftBank. “They really played flawlessly and their defense prevented us from playing at our pace.”

SoftBank’s superiority was most pronounced behind the plate. The Carp led the Central League with 95 stolen bases this season, but Hawks catchers Takuya Kai and Hiroaki Takaya shut them down completely.

Kai, who was named the series MVP, was historically efficient, throwing out all six runners who tried to steal second to set a Japan Series record for most runners thrown out consecutively.

“I think the pitchers and the batteries as a whole were the reason (for the victory),” Oh said. “Hiroshima had a great offense and our batteries had some tough times, but they did a great job.”

The series was a reaffirmation of the strength of not only SoftBank, but of the Pacific League. Pa League teams have won the last five Japan Series titles and are 9-2 in the Japanese Fall Classic since 2008.

It was fighting through the PL’s Climax Series that prepared SoftBank for the Japan Series. The Hawks finished in second place in the PL during the regular season and had to play through the first and final stages of the tournament.

“We felt nothing but frustration at finishing second in the league,” Kai said.

SoftBank needed all three games to eliminate the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the first stage and five to put away the league champion Seibu Lions in the final stage.

“Seibu was tough, so we’d already overcome an obstacle and came into the Japan Series with momentum,” Oh said.

Including the Japan Series, the Hawks ended up going 10-3 in games played on the field during the postseason. They were 10-4 officially, due to Seibu’s automatic one-game advantage as the league champion in the Climax Series.

“Once we earned a spot in the Japan Series, we didn’t care if we were second or whatever,” veteran Seiichi Uchikawa said. “We just wanted to be here as the PL representative and it paid off because we became champions in the end.”

They avenged their only loss of the series by defeating Carp pitcher Kris Johnson, the Game 2 winner, on Saturday.

Van den Hurk had his stuff working early and found his groove in the middle of the game, retiring seven straight at one point.

“I was able to throw a lot of fastballs today,” he said. “I recognized I had a lot of life on my fastball and mixing that with the off-speed stuff kept them off balance.

“Of course, sometimes you have to get the breaks, and I did tonight. Takuya threw somebody out, and we scored a couple of runs. That gave us even more confidence. We just tried to keep the momentum up on our side from the last few games and with that stuff we were able to clinch it tonight.”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report