Fighters go to the Japan Series for the first time in 25 years
by Bob Timmermann
Hichori Morimoto scored from second on an infield single with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to give the Nippon Ham Fighters a thrilling 1-0 win over the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and win the Pacific League pennant for the first time in 25 years and advance to the Japan Series on October 21. The Fighters, given a one-game advantage to start the series, won it 3-0 in just two games!
Morimoto dashed home from second when the runner on first, Michihiro Ogasawara, was able to just beat a force attempt by second baseman Taadatsu Nakazawa to shortstop Munenori Kawasaki on a grounder by Atsunori Inaba. As the umpire signaled Ogasawara safe, Morimoto was already more than halfway home and scored easily with the game's only run.
The game figured to be a pitchers duel between SoftBank's Kazumi Saitoh, who had a 1.75 ERA and 205 Ks on the season, and Nippon Ham's Tomoya Yagi, who had an ERA of 2.48.
The sold out Sapporo Dome crowd had to sit on its hands most of the game as few batters reached base and those that did rarely moved past first. Not helping matters was SoftBank interim manger Koji Moriwaki having his bottom three hitters in the order batting .176, .129, and .146 respectively. However Nakazawa, the .176 hitter, did go 2 for 3 on the night.
Two crucial umpiring decisions went against the Hawks. In the fourth, center fielder Naoyuki Omura dropped a bunt down that Nippon Ham catcher Shinya Tsuruoka fielded and fired to Ogasawara at first. Omura looked to be safe, but the umpire called him out. This led to an argument involving Omura, Moriwaki and SoftBank's first base coach (sorry, I don't have his name handy). This got five of the six umpires involved with only the left field line umpire standing by idly doing nothing. In the end, the call stood.
In the fifth, SoftBank first baseman Julio Zuleta reached on an error by Ogasawara. With a full count and one out to third baseman Jolbert Cabrera, Zuleta was running on the pitch. Cabrera struck out and Tsuruoka's throw to second baseman Kensuke Tanaka appeared to be knocked loose by a collision between him and Zuleta. Fighters manager Trey Hillman came out to complain and the umpires (five of them again, leaving out the left field line guy who apparently failed to buy everybody drinks last night) decided that Zuleta was out for interference. This call, which I had never seen before, was not an Alex Rodriguez-Bronson Arroyo situation. It appeared from my viewpoint that Zuleta, who is a big guy, just got to the base at the right time. But again, the call stood and it was K-CS-DP 2-4.
The Fighters weren't doing much of anything against Saito in the first eight innings. They scratched out just four singles and never advanced a runner to second.
Then came the bottom of the ninth.
Morimoto led off and drew a four-pitch walk, the first walk of the game by Saito. Tanaka followed with a sacrifice and Moriwaki opted to have Ogasawara intentionally walked and take his chances with free-swinging DH Fernando Seguignol (119 Ks, 40 BBs). Seguignol struck out, Saito's 8th of the game. Up came Inaba, who managed to hit a ball up the middle that Nakazawa could get to, but was not able to get the force that would have sent the game into extra innings. Instead, Ogasawara beat the throw, Morimoto crossed the plate, the red light for "hit" lit up on the scoreboard, and the Sapporo Dome was filled with streamers as the Fighters celebrated a pennant in front of their own fans.
Manager Hillman was given the traditional doage after the game where the players toss him in the air a few times. In the postgame interview, Hillman said he wanted to experience it one more time. Which would mean after the Japan Series. And the Fighters will be facing the Chunichi Dragons out of Nagoya starting on October 21. The series has the same schedule as the World Series with a 2-3-2 pattern.
Among the storylines to note is that Hillman is one of the leading candidates to take over the Texas Rangers managerial job. Hillman is also trying to become the second straight American manager to win the Japan Series, following Chiba's Bobby Valentine. Hillman may also be the first manager with something of a mullet to win a pennant in Japan. Chunichi's manager, Hiromitsu Ochiai, played two seasons for Nippon Ham at the end of his career (1997-98), although his best years came with Chunichi.
The Dragons have not won the Japan Series since 1954 and the Fighters have not won since 1962. And in 1962, the Fighters were called the Toei Flyers. Only the expansion Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, who started play in 2005, have not won the Japan Series. Until 2003, the Fighters shared the Tokyo Dome with the vastly more popular Yomiuri Giants and it wasn't even a Clippers vs. Lakers like situation. It was more like having the Devil Rays play at Yankee Stadium when the Bronx Bombers were out of town.
But tonight, the Fighters are the pennant winners. And the people of the island of Hokkaido, an area with much less hustle and bustle than the rest of Japan, are the proud owners of a league champion.
As for me, I'm saved a trip to Fukuoka, down on the island on Kyushu, and will be spending the next few days hanging out with friends in the Tokyo area. I may be taking in some Central League games. Its regular season isn't over yet although the pennant has been clinched, but they make up all the rainouts in Japan. You'll probably hear more from me when I get back to the States. Although much of it will be in the form of snoring.
The Hawks had a corporate office right near the Sapporo Dome:
The Sapporo Dome, it's really not all that better looking inside:
Nearly two hours before the game, the fans queue up:
To get a photo with BB Bear, the Fighters extraordinarily popular mascot:
Is he an improvement on the Tokyo mascot, Fighty?
The shaky camerawork here adds to the cinema verite feel to this post:
The Fighters celebrate and my battery dies soon after: