HIROSHIMA – The Heisei Era in Japan is set to end when Emperor Akihito abdicates next year on April 30.
Pinning down the end of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks’ current era of dominance in Japanese baseball is going to take a little bit more time.
Because as they showed during this Japan Series, their grip on the throne is as strong as ever.
Rick van den Hurk shut out the Hiroshima Carp for six innings and the Hawks scored runs on a squeeze bunt and a home run to capture another Japan Series title with a 2-0 win over the Carp in Game 6 in front of a crowd of 30,723 at Mazda Stadium on Saturday night.
The Hawks poured out of the dugout after closer Yuito Mori retired Seiya Suzuki to end the game. They celebrated on the mound and tossed manager Kimiyasu Kudo into the air 15 times during the doage celebration.
“It felt great and it made me happy,” Kudo said. “Our players have been working relentlessly since the end of the season.”
Hiroshima native Yuki Yanagita, who won Game 5 with a sayonara home run, was the next to go airborne.
“I’m just really, really happy,” Yanagita said. “That was my first time (getting a doage toss) since I was drafted.”Catcher Takuya Kai, who threw out all six runners who tried to steal bases, a Japan Series record for consecutive runners thrown out, was named MVP of the series.
The victory gives the Hawks their second consecutive Japan Series title and their fourth in the last five seasons and fifth in the last eight. The franchise will go down as the final champion of the Heisei Era (which began Jan. 8, 1989), with its seventh crown during that period.
“It’s a winning franchise,” Van den Hurk said. “That’s what the mindset is here with everything. That’s something I’m very grateful to be part of and very happy that we did it again.”
They won this title after finishing second in the Pacific League, an unfamiliar position for the club in recent years.
“We all play with the same rules and you can win the title as the second-place team,” first baseman Seiichi Uchikawa said.
The Hawks played the Carp to a tie in Game 1 and lost Game 2. They then closed out the series by reeling off four straight wins, including all three at home.
“Hiroshima is a tough team and my heart was always pounding with worry,” Kudo said. “This is the first time we’ve won coming out of second place (in the Pacific League) and we tried to do the best we could do and win the Japan Series. We played with that mindset.”
Tetsuro Nishida drove in SoftBank’s first run with a squeeze bunt in the fourth and Yurisbel Gracial added to the lead with a solo homer in the fifth. Van den Hurk, relievers Shota Takeda and Shinya Kayama and Mori did the rest, limiting Hiroshima to just four hits.
“Johnson is a great pitcher and we had a hard time scoring against him,” Gracial said, referring to Carp starter Kris Johnson. “So it felt great to be able to contribute with my bat.”
For the Carp, it was more disappointment. The club has won the past three Central League pennants but has failed to finish any of those years off with a Japan Series title.
“Our players gave their best until the very end,” Carp manager Koichi Ogata said. “We had a very good chance to win.”
The Carp went down the same way they did in 2016 against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters — by losing all three road games and then falling at home in Game 6.
Van den Hurk was the loser in Game 2 in Hiroshima and came back with a vengeance on Saturday night. The Dutch right-hander retired seven straight at one point and struck out 10 while allowing only three hits and a walk.
“I was looking forward to putting the team in a position to win and I was able to do that,” he said. “When you go up against the Carp lineup and Johnson on the mound, there not much room for error. In a tight game, we were able to continue to pitch well and we did that the whole game.
“That was great and obviously when you when the championship, that’s amazing.”
Kai, meanwhile, kept the running game of the Carp, who led the CL with 95 stolen bases, in check with his powerful and accurate right arm, which has been dubbed the “Kai Cannon.”
Kai threw himself into the record books in the first inning when he threw out Kosuke Tanaka trying to steal second for his fifth straight runner thrown out, which set a Japan Series record. Kai improved to 6-for-6 in the series when he threw out Tomohiro Abe in the second.
With Van den Hurk and Johnson, pitchers whose time in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization overlapped briefly, controlling things on the mound, the game was scoreless entering the fourth.
Yanagita drew a walk to start the frame and Akira Nakamura followed with a single. Uchikawa laid down a sacrifice bunt to move the runners over and Nishida dropped down a squeeze to make the score 1-0.
Gracial added to the lead in the fifth, connecting on a slider for a solo homer to left.
Pitching with the lead seemed to put a charge into Van den Hurk, who struck out seven between the fourth and sixth innings.
The bullpen took over from Van den Hurk to begin the seventh and pitched the Hawks to the title.
The game was the last for celebrated Carp star Takahiro Arai, who will retire.
Johnson, who was the winner in Game 2, took the loss in Game 6. The left-hander allowed two runs on three hits in six innings. Johnson struck out six and walked three.
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report