Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Hawks sweep Giants to win third straight Japan Series

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

The end of the NPB season in 2019 looks a lot like it did last year… and in 2017, 2015 and 2014 too.

They all finished with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks at the top of Japanese baseball.

Yurisbel Gracial hit a three-run home run, veteran pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada was in near-vintage form for five innings and the Hawks beat the Yomiuri Giants 4-3 in Game 4 of the Japan Series to secure their third straight title with a four-game sweep.

“I felt some regret at the end of the season,” Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo said, noting that his team failed to win the Pacific League pennant in the regular season. “I’m just so grateful to the players, who did their very best to become No. 1 in Japan.”

SoftBank closer Yuito Mori walked Yoshiyuki Kamei with two outs in the ninth before striking out likely Central League MVP Hayato Sakamoto, in a tense seven-pitch at-bat, to send the Hawks racing onto the field to celebrate winning their fifth title in six seasons. The Hawks are the first team to three-peat since the 1990-92 Seibu Lions.

“I think this is just the best team,” Hawks outfielder Yuki Yanagita said.

The Hawks showed off their strengths in all facets of the game, outscoring the Giants 23-10 in the series. The SoftBank pitchers held Yomiuri to 22 hits overall, tied for the fewest in a Japan Series.

“Our players were able to score often and play good defense,” Kudo said.

The Hawks are now 6-0 in the Japan Series since 2011 with wins over all six Central League clubs in that span.

SoftBank missed out on winning the Pacific League pennant but surged in the postseason. After losing the opening game of the PL Climax Series, the Hawks reeled off 10 straight victories, including going 8-0 on the field against the PL champion Seibu Lions and the CL champion Giants.

“We went in with the mindset that we wanted to win and that we couldn’t lose,” Kudo said.

Gracial finished the series with three home runs and six RBIs, was 6-for-16 at the plate and was named the Japan Series MVP.

“I’m really happy and grateful to have been named MVP,” Gracial said.

The Cuban outfielder gave the Hawks the lead with a two-run home run in the second inning of Game 1 and tied Game 3 with a solo shot.

He broke a scoreless tie in the fourth on Wednesday with his three-run shot to left off Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano to get the Hawks pointed toward another title.

“He’s a great hitter,” Yanagita said. “He’s always training. I watch him working out and running. That’s the kind of player you want to become.”

His Game 4 blast put Wada in line for his first Japan Series victory since earning the win in Game 7 of the 2003 Series as a rookie. The 38-year-old lefty stuck out six — four on called third strikes — in five scoreless innings.

Gracial was later asked which of the three home runs was his favorite.

“For me, it was today’s home run,” Gracial said. “It came at a good time and it was a good home run. Also because if we won this game, we would win the title. So because of that, I think it was important.”

Yomiuri trailed for most of the night but didn’t go down without a fight. Kazuma Okamoto pulled the Kyojin within a run with a two-run homer in the sixth that made the score 3-2. After SoftBank scored another run in the seventh, Yoshihiro Maru made it 4-3 with an RBI double off the wall in left in the bottom of the seventh.

Sugano, who had suffered from a back injury and was pitching for the first time since Sept. 15, put up a solid effort in defeat. He pitched 6⅓ innings and allowed four runs — three earned.

The sweep was the first in the Japan Series since 2005, when the Chiba Lotte Marines won four straight against the Hanshin Tigers.

The Giants were swept in a Japan Series for the first time since 1990 against Seibu.

The defeat not only spelled the end of Yomiuri’s season, but also of the careers of two of its stars.

Catcher Shinnosuke Abe announced his retirement shortly before the end of the regular season. One of Japan’s greatest catchers, Abe was hit by a pitch in his first at-bat in Game 4 and grounded out to second in the final at-bat of his 19-year career.

Giants fans chanted his name after the game, and he was given a doage by members of both teams after the Hawks’ celebrations wound down.

Pitcher Scott Mathieson announced his intention to retire immediately after Game 4.

“This is gonna be it for me and I’m going to retire after this year,” Mathieson said. “I’m going to keep playing for Team Canada, but professionally, I’m finished now.”

Mathieson had been a Yomiuri reliever since 2012 and made 421 regular-season appearances. His one and only start came in the final home game of this year, because the retiring Abe wanted to catch him one last time.

Knee problems limited Mathieson to just 34 appearances last season. He returned to the mound this year after having surgery, but felt limited.

“I think the biggest thing is I just don’t feel I can pitch the way I used to be able to,” Mathieson said. “After my knee surgery, it was never back to 100 percent.”

He also said he wanted more time to be with his family as his children grow up.

Sakamoto, who struck out to end the game and the series, had a Japan Series to forget after an unforgettable regular season that saw him hit 40 homers and drive in 94 runs. The Yomiuri captain was just 1-for-13 in the series.

The club’s All-Star trio of Sakamoto, Yoshihiro Maru and Okamoto — the team’s Nos. 2, 3, and 4 batters — finished a combined 5-for-42. Okamoto had a home run and three RBIs and Maru drove in one run.

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