The most unpredictable of pennant races ended with among the most predictable of results: The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, once again, on top of the Pacific League and looking toward the Climax Series and possibly a fourth straight Japan Series title.
Japanese baseball’s reigning dynasty wrapped up the 2020 pennant with a 5-1 win over the Chiba Lotte Marines Tuesday night, getting six shutout innings and eight strikeouts from 39-year-old veteran Tsuyoshi Wada and a two-run homer from catcher Takuya Kai. The Hawks win so much it’s easy to forget this is their first PL title since 2017, despite their recent dominance of the Japan Series.
This one was anything but normal, coming in a season that was altered by the coronavirus pandemic. Even the SoftBank celebration was a sign of the times we currently live in. Manager Kimiyasu Kudo and team chairman Sadaharu Oh touched wrists in lieu of a handshake. Instead of players gathering near the mound to fling Kudo into the air during a doage, they formed a giant circle around the infield and watched as golden confetti was fired into the air and led the crowd in a banzai cheer.
An abnormal celebration for an abnormal year.
“Opening day was pushed back from March 20 to June 19 this year due to the coronavirus,” Kudo said during the winning manager interview. “During that time, many people worked to start the season. Thanks to the efforts of NPB, the teams and officials, we were able to start on June 19.
“Moreover, without the dedication of the medical professionals, pro baseball might not have been able to start. We got a lot of courage from the medical community.”
SoftBank persevered during this weird 2020 season. Through Tuesday, the Hawks had the second-best team batting average in the PL and a 2.94 team ERA that led the league by a wide margin and was also tops in NPB.
“I think we’ve got a lot of amazing pitchers,” outfielder Akira Nakamura said.
The closest team the standings after Tuesday night was the Marines, 10½-games back.
Considering the way COVID-19 ravaged Japan earlier in the year, leading then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to declare a nationwide state of emergency at one point, it’s a small miracle there was even a season at all.
When the shortened campaign finally got under way, it was in empty ballparks as fans were kept away until mid-summer. The schedule was altered to limit travel — with PL teams playing six-game series early in the year — and extra-inning games were capped at 10 frames. The players themselves had to adjust to COVID-19 testing and a litany of new protocols; masks were a common sight in every dugout. The All-Star Series was scrapped, as was the entire Climax Series in the Central League and the first stage in the PL.
A few teams, SoftBank included, dealt with positive COVID-19 cases within their organizations.
SoftBank, though, came out the other side with the title many expected them to win all along.
The Hawks did it with familiar faces like Yuki Yanagita, who is batting .348 and has seemingly hit one unbelievable home run after another, Akira Nakamura, Kodai Senga and Wada. They also, however, had some young players step up and really shine for the first time in important roles.
“(Ukyo) Shuto is one of those,” Nakamura said. “I actually train with (Ryoya) Kurihara and I think I got some inspiration from his performance.”
Shuto, now entrusted with more than pinch running, was batting .273 through Tuesday. He also led NPB with 44 stolen bases, which would have been enough to lead NPB last year in a full 143-game season. Kurihara, meanwhile, was second on the team with 14 home runs and had 68 RBIs.
Pitcher Shuta Ishikawa has been around, but kicked it into another gear this year and is 9-3 with a 2.54 ERA. Nao Higashihama is a veteran, but has bounced back from a poor 2019 and is 8-1 with a 2.18 ERA. Including Senga (9-6, 2.49) and Wada (8-1, 2.94) SoftBank has four pitchers with at least eight wins and ERAs under 3.00 with at least 85 innings pitched.
The Hawks just keep coming and they keep winning. With this year’s title, they’ve finished either first or second in the PL every year since 2014 and in nine of the last 11 seasons.
Only time will tell if the dynasty extends its reign over the postseason for another year. What’s clear, though, is someone will have to knock off the best to be the best. That, at least, hasn’t changed.
The Hawks began the journey by beating the Marines in an empty PayPay Dome three months after the season was scheduled to start. They ended the PL pennant race by beating the Marines in the same place in front of a crowd of just 19,988 because of COVID-19 guidelines.
There were a lot of twists and turns between those two games. The way it ended, though, was about as normal as it gets.
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