Fukuoka – The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks may be in the middle of an epoch-making run in Japanese baseball that could — if other teams can emulate the way they operate on and off the field— cause a shift in the game.
That, however, remains to be seen. What we know for certain, and with even greater clarity after the Hawks secured a fourth straight Japan Series title with a 4-1 win over the Yomiuri Giants in Game 4 on Wednesday, is that this era of Japanese baseball, without question, belongs to SoftBank.
“This team was created by Chairman (Sadaharu) Oh,” SoftBank manager Kimiyasu Kudo said Wednesday night. “He wanted it to be a strong team. Manager Akiyama and then myself were given that team.”
Koji Akiyama guided the Hawks to titles in 2011 and 2014, while Kudo was at the helm in 2015 and has now guided SoftBank to its current four-peat.
“I have to thank the players,” Kudo said. “I was only able to come this far because they covered up my shortcomings.”
The Hawks are winning at a historic level. They are the first team to sweep the Japan Series in consecutive seasons, after also blowing past the Giants in 2019.
“I think our players’ power is amazing,” Kudo said. “It was hard to maintain our condition to get to this point after the season was over. It’s thanks to the way they focused and fought during the Japan Series.”
SoftBank is also the first to win four straight titles since the V9-era Giants won nine in a row from 1965-73 and the first Pacific League team to do it. The Hawks have won seven Japan Series titles and five PL pennants since 2011.
This year, they dealt with the irregularities brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, including a nearly three-month delay in starting the season, and finished with the best record in NPB at 73-42-5.
The Hawks were in first place for virtually the entire second half of the season, but really turned on the afterburners in October. They began a 12-game winning streak on Oct. 10 and closed out the year by going 27-3 in their final 30 games, including the postseason.
“It was such a difficult season,” said Ryoya Kurihara, who was named Japan Series MVP. “We got energy from our fans and that led to this championship.”
The Hawks are the class of NPB and have created a juggernaut that has earned a place among the league’s great teams. Their mix of veterans, like Yuki Yanagita and Akira Nakamura, and up-and-comers, like Kurihara and Ukyo Shuto, suggest they could remain on top for years to come.
They have the best organizational structure in Japan, the resources to support it and the prowess on the coaching side that has taken developmental draft picks and turned them into superstars like ace Kodai Senga and quality players like catcher Takuya Kai and Game 2 winner Shuta Ishikawa.
This year, they blew past a team that won the Central League by 7½ games.
The Hawks faced their only deficit of this Japan Series in Game 4, after an RBI double by Hayato Sakamoto gave the Giants a 1-0 lead in the top of the first.
SoftBank didn’t trail for very long.
Yuki Yanagita put the Hawks on top with a two-run home run to right in the bottom half of the inning that made the score 2-1. Kai added a two-run homer, his second homer of the series, in the second inning to stretch the lead to three runs.
Kai also guided the Hawks pitchers through eight scoreless innings to finish off Game 4. The SoftBank pitchers had a strong series, holding Yomiuri to four runs and a .132 batting average that was the lowest in Japan Series history. Yomiuri only managed 16 hits, another Japan Series record it didn’t want.
“I think Kai led our pitchers very well,” Kudo said. “Our pitching staff followed Kai’s lead and pitched even better than in the regular season.”
Kai has been a constant for the club during this run.
“Kai has been the catcher for these four years, and seeing his face gave me a sense of security,” Senga said during an interview broadcast on the team’s media channels.
Kurihara finished with four RBIs and led SoftBank with seven hits.
“I didn’t really have good results during the Climax Series,” Kurihara said. “I think it was really difficult, but I just wanted to do whatever I could for the team in the Japan Series, and that’s what I did.”
Kurihara was in the starting lineup for Japan Series games for the first time in his career and drove in the first runs of the series with a two-run homer against Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano in the second inning of Game 1.
“That was a really big home run for me,” Kurihara said. “I wanted to put the team’s first runs on the board. So it was a really amazing situation for me.”
Yanagita, the likely Pacific League MVP, finished the Japan Series with six hits and three RBIs. Nakamura had a two-run homer in Game 3 and ended the series with four RBIs. Alfredo Despaigne tied a Japan Series record with six RBIs in Game 2 and while he only had two hits during the series, one of them was a Grand Slam.
SoftBank now heads into the offseason after a difficult and draining year that ended with yet another title.
“This is the best feeling,” Nakamura said. “I’m just so relieved.”
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