The heartbreak continues for Hanshin Tigers fans. A strong showing against the Yomiuri Giants and a brilliantly played Game 1 had fans hoping for the team’s first Nippon Series title since 1985. Instead, the SoftBank Hawks (particularly their pitching) silenced the Tigers and their fans, winning four straight while only allowing 4 runs in 37 innings in those games.
Tonight featured yet another battle of the pitchers. Hawks starter Tadashi Settsu had his curveball spinning just right and threw six shutout innings, striking out seven Tigers and inducing 8 ground outs. Randy Messenger pitched his heart out, getting out of jam after jam, with help from two outstanding catches by centerfielder Yamato. Despite throwing over 115 pitches, he was trotted out for the bottom of the eighth. He managed to get two outs and was a strike away from getting out of yet another jam, but Matsuda managed to punch one through the infield, scoring Yanagita easily from third base. The score after eight innings: 1-0 Hawks.
The ninth inning was not without its drama and controversy, though. Closer Dennis Sarfate walked Uemoto on four pitches before striking out Toritani. Gomez also took for bad pitches and walked to first, and Fukudome battled back from a 1-2 count to also walk. The bases were then loaded for designated hitter Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Any hit to the outfield would have tied the game. Unfortunately, he grounded out to first. The throw home was an easy second out, but the throw from the catcher to first caromed off Nishioka’s back, and he seemingly made it safely to first. Pinch runner Tagami scampered around third and beat the relay home, and it looked like a tie game. However, the umpires were quick to call baserunner interference on Nishioka, saying he was running inside the base path. You decide. (Full video of the play below.)
The Hawks were relieved, throwing hats in the air and charging the mound in celebration. The game was over, though Tigers manager Yutaka Wada ran out to protest the call (to no avail, naturally).
Earlier in the game, too, there seemed to be several calls in the Hawks’ favor. Murton attempted to steal second base in the third inning on what looked like a hit-and-run plan. He was called out and protested loudly and angrily, saying he was not tagged. Replays were inconclusive but he did appear to have a case. Uemoto subsequently got to first, attempted to steal as well, and was thrown out.
I will not say the umpires decided the series. They definitely made a questionable final call, and even seemed to lean towards the Hawks in many ball-strike calls, check swing calls and others. However, the Tigers’ silent bats were ultimately what did them in. Perhaps we need to credit the starting four pitchers who completely shut down the Tiger Nine: Takeda in Game 2, Ohtonari in Game 3, Higashihama (reliever) in Game 4 and Settsu in Game 5. Congratulations to the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks on their sixth “Nippon ichi” and their first in three years. What a fitting end to the career of manager Koji Akiyama.
It was a disappointing end to a thrilling season, though. The Tigers played their hearts out this year, sometimes thrilling fans, sometimes driving them nuts. Their incredible sweep of the Giants will be talked about for many years to come, and the way this series ended will also be a conversation topic for some time as well. In all, I applaud the organization, its staff and players. Well done, Tigers! Let’s take it all in 2015!