Even the most ardent SoftBank Hawks fans did not want to see the Pacific League best-of-five Climax Series end in two games. But it did.
If you have been following Japanese baseball for a year or more, you are probably aware that the playoff system is rigged to give the higher-ranked team an overwhelming advantage. Not only do they get to host the entire series, but in the case of the series that determines the Japan Series finalists, they are also given a one-game advantage. With the shortened format this season, both the Central and Pacific agreed to play 120-game regular seasons. Since the Central has only two domed stadiums versus four in the Pacific, it was determined that an excess of make-up games (which almost all come at season’s end) would make it difficult for the CL to hold any playoffs this year. The Pacific shortened their playoffs to a single best-of-five series that pitted the second-place Chiba Lotte Marines against the runaway dynasty (three-time Japan Series winning) Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. As I just mentioned, the Hawks started the series with one game in hand. Technically, all they needed was a win and a tie to advance…
Game 1: Saturday, November 14
Manabu Mima (Marines) vs. Kodai Senga (Hawks)
The Marines drew first blood in the second inning with a two-run home run from 21-year old Hisanori Yasuda, who became the youngest player ever to hit a bomb in the NPB playoffs. The Hawks got one back on a Yuki Yanagita home run in the fourth inning, but the Marines got that run right back in the fifth. What happened next was somewhat unusual, especially considering the power that the Hawks boast. Two singles and a bunt put them in a position to tie the game with one hit, if it were to get out of the infield. DH Alfredo Despaigne (generously listed at 5’9” and 210 pounds) legged out an infield single to score one run. The next batter, Taisei Makihara, hit a dribbler to second, and what should have been an easy out turned into an error that resulted in the tying run crossing home. Two innings later, with two outs and the bases loaded, catcher Takuya Kai hit a single to short for the go-ahead run that held up as the winner. They got their last three runs on balls that all stayed in the infield.
Final Score: Hawks 4, Marines 3
Game 2: Sunday, November 15
Wei-Yin Chen (Marines) vs. Nao Higashihama (Hawks)
Only once in playoff history had a team scored three or more runs in the first inning and gone on to lose. Better make it two. Yasuda once again provided the big stick as he hit a two-run double to open the scoring. He scored the third run on a ground ball before the Hawks were able to get off the field. On this day, the Hawks flexed their collective muscles to send the Marines packing. Akira Nakamura hit two-run home runs in consecutive at-bats, the second of which was followed up with a Nobuhiro Matsuda solo blast. The Marines got one back after (you guessed it) Yasuda got cashed in from second base on a pair of grounders. But the Hawks stretched the lead back to two in the bottom half as Takuya Kai motored around the bases from first on a triple by Ukyo Shuto. Closer Yuito Mori made it interesting, loading the bases with one out, but made sure the Hawks advanced, retiring the final two Marines batters.
Final Score: Hawks 6, Marines 4
To make matters direr for the Marines, it was announced today that ace pitcher Ayumu Ishikawa and stellar reliever Hirokazu Sawamura are both hoping to get offers from the majors in 2021. Ishikawa has reportedly asked to be posted, while Sawamura is an international free agent. Still, the future is very bright for the Marines, who arguably boast more young talent than any other team in NPB.
The Japan Series starts on Saturday with the Hawks heading to Kyocera Dome (Osaka) to face the Yomiuri Giants. This best-of-seven is a rematch of last year’s Japan Series finalists. The Hawks swept last year, which leaves the Giants looking for revenge.