Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

Hawks display tremendous depth, talent en route to Japan Series three-peat

by Jason Coskrey

The only thing left to do is marvel at the absolute playoff strength of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.

Simply calling them strong somehow feels inadequate. But the Hawks have rendered the extraordinary so mind-numbingly routine during the last several postseasons, purposeful simplicity is probably the only way to go when trying to explain it.

Their strength was on display for all to see again during a 2019 Japan Series that lasted just four games.

Yurisbel Gracial hit a three-run home run and SoftBank beat the Yomiuri Giants 4-3 in Game 4 on Wednesday night to clinch its third straight Japan Series title.

The Hawks have now ended five of the last six seasons as Japan Series champions. Since 2011, SoftBank has faced each of the six Central League teams in the Japan Series and is 6-0.

This year’s SoftBank team didn’t have All-Star outfielder Yuki Yanagita for most of the regular season and was without star closer Dennis Sarfate for the entire year. Sho Iwasaki pitched twice, Nao Higashihama only seven times. Outfielder Akira Nakamura only played 44 games.

The Hawks’ depth, including some talented rookie pitchers, kept them in the pennant race and the team got healthier toward the end of the year.

While they’ve looked human before in the regular season, the Hawks have a knack for coming together in the crucible of the postseason. This year was no different.

“The team was united,” Yanagita said. “I think that was the most important thing.”

Burned by a failure to win the Pacific League pennant, the Hawks channeled that disappointment into fuel and very nearly reeled off a perfect postseason. After losing its playoff opener, SoftBank went 10-0 the rest of the way.

“First of all, we missed out on winning the league title,” said catcher Hiroaki Takaya. “That was really regrettable. But we had players like (Nobuhiro) Matsuda and (Keizo) Kawashima who were able to lift everyone’s spirits and we fed off that atmosphere. It gave us some energy. After that, we were able to play relaxed.”

They made up for letting the pennant slip through their fingers by delivering a comprehensive sweep of the Central League’s best team in the Fall Classic.

Gracial hit home runs in Games 1, 3, and 4 and was named Japan Series MVP after going 6-for-16 with six RBIs.

He was the biggest contributor, but far from the only one on a team that scored 23 runs in four games.

Yanagita drove in three runs in the series. So did Matsuda, with a three-run homer that helped win Game 2. Alfredo Despaigne drove in three runs in Game 3. Not to mention the big hits that helped set the table for them all.

They were just as dominant on the mound.

The SoftBank pitchers held the Giants to a .176 average that was a new record low in the Japan Series. Yomiuri also struck out 35 times, another new record, and managed just 22 hits, which tied a record low.

SoftBank’s starters gave up just three runs in 23 innings. Yuito Mori closed out all four games, though he only registered a save in Game 4.

“The pitchers were great and likewise, the battery was important in this Japan Series. Takuya’s focus was amazing,” Takaya said, referring to starting catcher Takuya Kai. “He helped the pitchers attack the batters point-by-point and I think that was big.”

SoftBank has an embarrassment of riches, an advantage that has become more pronounced in postseason play.

“Our balance in the team, it’s so strong,” said Game 3 starter Rick van den Hurk. “We have a very good bench, we have good depth. Our starting lineup is very solid. We have good defense. We have a good starting rotation. Then you see our bullpen, we have long guys, we have lefty set-up guys, but we also have a lefty specialist.

“The depth that we have is just really amazing.”

Eventually, probably, their time will abate. For now, though, they’re still too strong. Thus the NPB year ended with manager Kimiyasu Kudo shimmying out to the field and jumping into Yanagita’s arms as the team celebrated on the diamond at Tokyo Dome.

They only stopped their revelry long enough to bow to the Giants fans and help the vanquished Kyojin give retiring star catcher Shinnosuke Abe a rousing sendoff.

The Hawks then moved the party to a nearby hotel and emptied over 3,000 bottles during their beer fight. Kenta Imamiya said they were going to do their best to end the next season the way they finished this one.

Scary as it is, they might just have the strength to do it.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5