Nippon Ham earns Japanese crown
Club caps title run with 4-1 victory over Chunichi Dragons
SAPPORO, Japan -- There wasn't much hope for the Chunichi Dragons to get the Japan Series back to Nagoya -- not with the way the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters were playing.
Nippon Ham didn't dominate, but it had a perfect combination of pitching, defense and timely hitting, sealing up the Japan Series championship with a 4-1 victory in Game 5 on Thursday at Sapporo Dome.
"It was a bunch of things coming together at the right time," manager Trey Hillman said.
It was the second series championship for the franchise, and it marked the end of veteran outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo's career.
Shinjo announced earlier in the season that he would retire, and the Fighters gave their leader a storybook ending to his 17-year baseball career, including time spent in the Majors.
"Really it was like a cartoon or something," said Shinjo, who had tears running down his face during his final at-bat, a strikeout. "Do you really think I could have done any better?"
Right fielder Atsunori Inaba was 6-for-16 with two home runs and seven RBIs in earning Japan Series MVP honors. Inaba had a three-run home run that iced Nippon Ham's 6-1 Game 3 victory, and his two-run double in Game 4 gave the Fighters insurance runs in a 3-0 win.
Inaba's solo homer in Game 5 was mostly meaningless, save providing an exclamation point on his MVP bid.
"I was really nervous for the playoffs," Inaba said. "That made me want it even more. The Hokkaido fans pushed us to this title."
As the beer shower got under way and players answered questions, the answers always led back to the fans on Japan's northern island, who got to celebrate Japan Series glory in just their third year of having a team.
"The move to Hokkaido has worked because of these fans," Hillman said. "And we need to remember that without them, we would not be here."
The Fighters used to play at Tokyo Dome, but after Sapporo Dome was built in 2001 ahead of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, talk of relocation began heating up.
The Fighters had a capacity crowd of more than 42,000 on hand for Thursday's clincher, quite a step up from crowds at the Big Egg, which sometimes were less than 1,000. With Hillman at the reins, Nippon Ham made the playoffs its first season in Hokkaido (earning a first-round exit) before a dismal fifth-place finish in 2005. This year the Fighters did it right, winning the Pacific League's top seed and sweeping the PL championship.
Chunichi and Nippon Ham split the first two games, played at the Dragons' Nagoya Dome, but the Fighters swept their home games.
Pitchers' duels between Chunichi ace Kenshin Kawakami and Nippon Ham No. 1 Yu Darvish bookended Games 2-4, with the veteran Kawakami walking away on top the first time and the 20-year-old Darvish -- an Iranian-Japanese right-hander -- going 7 1/3 innings for the victory in Game 5.
Kawakami gave up two runs, five hits and three walks while striking out eight in the Dragons' 4-2 win in Game 1, and he scattered three runs, six hits and two walks over six innings Thursday.
Kawakami earned the Fighting Spirit Award, given to the best player on the losing team.
In between, the Fighters sent rookies Tomoya Yagi and Masaru Takeda to the hill in games 2 and 3, and the duo became the first pair of rookies to win Japan Series games for one team in the Hinomaru Fall Classic's 57-year history.
The troubled Satoru Kanemura earned his redemption in Game 4, lasting five innings in his return to the Nippon Ham rotation.
The Fighters veteran was suspended and fined after criticizing Hillman, who took the pitcher out during a late-season game against the Chiba Lotte Marines. The start would have been Kanemura's last of the regular season, and he was pulled with the bases loaded, missing the chance to work his way out of the jam.
The Fighters went on to lose the game, but had Kanemura been able to stick around and find a way to win, he would have kept his streak of winning in double figures going. Kanemura went five innings on Wednesday in Sapporo, giving up five hits and a pair of walks. Kanemura struck out two, setting the tone for a five-pitcher shutout.
"Kane did a great job," Hillman said. "I am proud for him, I know his teammates are proud for him, and I know these fans are proud for him."
Kanemura bowed to his teammates and to fans during the postgame hero interview, hopeful that the incident would not taint him for good.
"Tomorrow, in front of these great fans, we would like to win the championship," an emotional Kanemura said. "I am so sorry for what I said, what I did -- both to my team and the fans. I will be cheering right along with the fans tomorrow. "I have been waiting 12 years since joining this team for a championship."
Other standouts for the Fighters included first baseman/designated hitter Fernando Seguignol, a former Major Leaguer. Seguignol had two homers, including a two-run shot for the go-ahead runs in Game 5.
Seguignol and left fielder Hichori Morimoto (7-for-19) were honored for their offensive contributions.
Second baseman Kensuke Tanaka set a Japan Series record with six sacrifice bunts, all in the name of advancing leadoff man Morimoto. The enigmatic Morimoto went 0-for-4 in Game 5, giving two-hole hitter Tanaka the green light, which he used to full advantage, going 3-for-4 with a run and a stolen base.
Stephen Ellsesser is a reporter for The Japan Times and is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.