• SHARE

It had to be Yuhei Nakamura.

If the Tokyo Yakult Swallows were going to finish off an already stunning season with a Japan Series championship, it was only fitting Nakamura, the team’s longtime catcher, ended up on the podium as the MVP when it was all said and done.

The Swallows went from Central League cellar-dwellers in back-to-back seasons to 2021 Japan Series champions on Saturday, completing the final step with a 2-1 victory over the Orix Buffaloes in Game 6 in Kobe. Yakult won its first title since 2001 and the first by a Central League club since the Yomiuri Giants in 2012.

A riveting and tightly contested Japan Series full of twists and turns wrapped up with a 12-inning thriller that lasted exactly five hours and ended when pinch hitter Shingo Kawabata drove in a run in the top of the 12th and Scott McGough closed it out in the bottom half to send the Swallows running onto the field to celebrate.

“Every game was really draining,” Nakamura said. “Orix is a really good team.”

Nakamura expertly led the pitching staff and threw a couple of runners out from behind the plate during the series. At the dish, he was 7-for-22 with three RBIs.

Swallows catcher Yuhei Nakamura throws to second during Game 6 of the Japan Series in Kobe on Saturday. | KYODO
Swallows catcher Yuhei Nakamura throws to second during Game 6 of the Japan Series in Kobe on Saturday. | KYODO

This season was a complete turnaround for Yakult. The Swallows were 23 games under .500 in 2019 and 28 games below the mark last year. The Birds were 5-6-3 after losing to the Chunichi Dragons on April 11 this season and never spent another day under .500 on the way to a 73-52-18 finish.

Yakult hung around the Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants in the top half of the Central League before ultimately passing them and never looking back on the way to the pennant.

The key was a pitching staff that finished the previous five seasons with a team ERA of at least 4.13 but bounced back to finish at 3.48 this season. It was a total team effort, with Yakult’s starters averaging just over five innings per game and the bullpen handling just over 3½ innings. Only the DeNA BayStars used their relievers more on average.

Yasunobu Okugawa led the team with a 9-4 record and 3.26 ERA in 18 starts, while McGough had 31 saves and reliever Noboru Shimizu set an NPB record with 50 holds.

Some of the credit also goes to Nakamura, who guided the pitchers with a steady and experienced hand.

“Thank you to the pitchers,” Nakamura said, looking out for his hurlers one last time in 2021.

The Yakult staff held Orix to one or fewer runs in three of the six games during the Japan Series.

“The Orix batters were really relentless, and didn’t give up until the very end,” Nakamura said. “Rather than worrying about their batters, I trusted our pitchers. I was only thinking about bringing out the best points of the pitchers.”

The Swallows celebrate on the mound after beating Orix to claim their first Japan Series title in 20 years. | KYODO
The Swallows celebrate on the mound after beating Orix to claim their first Japan Series title in 20 years. | KYODO

It took a collective effort to absorb Orix ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s best shot in Game 6. Five Swallows pitchers held the Buffaloes to one run and prevented them from handing Yamamoto, who only yielded one run over nine innings, a lead to carry across the finish line.

The other constant this year was Kawabata, a former batting champion who settled into a role as a super-sub off the bench. Kawabata tied the team record with 18 RBIs as a pinch hitter and his 30 hits off the bench were one fewer than the NPB mark held by former Swallows player Mitsuru Manaka, who was the manager when the team reached the Japan Series in 2015.

“I’ve been relying on him all season,” Swallows manager Shingo Takatsu said.

After a passed ball put Yasutaka Shiomi into scoring position in the 12th, Kawabata came up with the biggest hit of the season to drive him in.

The regular batters weren’t so bad either in 2021, scoring 625 runs during a regular season in which no other NPB team scored more than 584.

Munetaka Murakami, the young star who broke into tears during the celebration on Saturday, led the charge as the NPB co-leader with 39 home runs and finished second with 112 RBIs. He had two home runs among his five hits during the Japan Series and drove in three runs.

Takatsu told his team everything was OK at every turn and never let them panic. He was a calming force in the dugout and the Swallows took that mentality to heart.

It paid off in a Japan Series where five of the six games were decided by one run.

Yakult players hold up the Japan Series pennant at Hotto Motto Field Kobe on Saturday. | KYODO
Yakult players hold up the Japan Series pennant at Hotto Motto Field Kobe on Saturday. | KYODO

The former MLB closer kept faith in his own closer McGough, who took a pair of losses after allowing the go-ahead run in the ninth innings of Games 1 and 5. Takatsu was rewarded when the American delivered a strong 2⅓ innings of scoreless relief in the clincher on Saturday and enveloped him in a hug after the game.

Takatsu now has a title as a manager to go with the four he won as a player, including in 1995, when he earned the save in the clinching game against the Orix BlueWave. The Chicago White Sox, with whom Takatsu earned a World Series ring in 2005, posted a congratulatory tweet in recognition of his achievement.

Nakamura was behind the plate for McGough as he has been all season. He was the foundation of this run and when it was all said and done, he got to celebrate on the podium as MVP as he and his teammates became champions.

“I’m just so happy right now,” Nakamura said. “We started off from the bottom after last year and as the challengers we took it one game at a time. I think that led to this result today.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

PHOTO GALLERY (CLICK TO ENLARGE)