|Hiroshima Toyo Carp||68||57||5||.544||7.0|
|Yokohama Taiyo Whales||57||61||12||.483||14.5|
* Bold indicates league top
* Bold indicates league top
The season started on a losing note, with Hanshin getting walked off by Hiroshima in extra innings. The next day they narrowly avoided the same fate, hanging on for the win. Upon their return home, Hanshin faced their biggest rivals: the Yomiuri Giants. A ghastly error by their third baseman (dropped a pop fly) led to a huge fourth inning, allowing the team to win the opener. The second game (April 17) is one that has gone down in Hanshin folklore. Training 3-1 in the bottom of the seventh, Randy Bass hit a three-run homer, followed by a Masayuki Kakefu solo shot and another by Akinobu Okada. All to dead center. (See here for more details.) People are quick to forget that the Giants brought it to within a run in the ninth, but Hanshin won that game and the next one, giving them confidence and momentum that would last the entire year. By month’s end, Hanshin was 6 games over .500 and had 3 hitters with at least 6 home runs (Bass and Akinobu Mayumi with 7 each, Kakefu with 6).
Including two April games, the team went 7 straight without a win before breaking loose in a big way on May 6th – 18 runs on 23 hits (see below), including 2 home runs by Bass. The team would take its first walk off victory on the 15th of the month, coming back from an 0-3 deficit and then breaking the tie in extra innings on a Bass sacrifice fly. This was a team that was constantly overcoming early game deficits, as evidence by their big comeback against the Giants on May 20. After giving up a run in five of the first six innings, Noriyoshi Sano hit a grand slam and Mayumi gave Hanshin the lead on a 2-run shot in the seventh. One extra run scored in the ninth, and Hanshin continued to flex its muscle against the Giants. Just two days later, down 0-7 in the bottom of the third, the team battered Hiroshima’s pitchers into the fetal position, winning 13-8. Three days after that, they pulled a similar trick against the Dragons, scoring 5 runs after being down 0-3.
Even when the bats were not at their best, the pitching stepped up when necessary. Rich Gale threw two straight complete game shutouts while facing the Giants, including one on June 6. (Both games ended 2-0, and were won on home runs by sluggers. Okada hit a 2-run shot in the first game on May 18, Bass hit two solo shots in the second.) Still, it was all about the bats in this season. The team put up 29 runs in three straight wins from June 21-23, including Kakefu’s 300th career home run in the third of those blowout wins. For the third straight month, Hanshin found itself at the top of the standings at month’s end.
The streak would end in July, though, as the team slumped badly heading into the all-star break. A 5-8 start to July meant a three-game deficit to the Hiroshima Carp. While the team had an incredible 121 home runs by the break, it also had a 4.61 ERA (not worst in the league, mind you).
The team righted the ship after the time off, rattling off a 11-2-1 record (and starting the August “Road of Death” with 5 straight wins). Bass suffered a foot injury on August 1 that was supposed to keep him out of action for two weeks, but he was back in the lineup 5 days later. On August 12 (a day off for the team), however, tragedy struck the team. An airplane carrying team chairman Hajimu Nakano crashed, killing all but 4 on board. The team proceeded to lose six straight games, including 3 to the second place Giants and two to the first place Carp. Fortunately they were able to right the ship at the end of the road trip, winning 2 of 3 to finish 7-7. Finally getting a day off without having to travel on August 31, the team paid its respects to Mr. Nakano at Koshien Field. Players Association head Okada commented that the best tribute the team could pay to him would be to win the pennant.
September was a strong month for Hanshin, as the team started the month with 9 wins and 2 losses. Their slim lead of 0.5 games over Yomiuri and 1.0 over Hiroshima on September 1 quickly increased to a comfortable 7.5 games by the end of the month. Bass (45) and Kakefu (32) had already reached the 30-bomb mark earlier in the season, and were joined by teammates Okada and Mayumi on September 17. Their lead in the Central would not be relinquished or even diminished the rest of the way. Yomiuri and Hiroshima slumped badly, and Hanshin continued to beat up on all their Central League foes.
With six games left on the schedule, Hanshin’s magic number sat at 1. It faced the lowly Yakult Swallows at Jingu Stadium in front of 50,000 rabid fans, many of whom came to cheer on the road team. Down 0-1 in the fourth, Mayumi hit his 33rd home run of the season to tie things up. Two innings later, Bass got his 52nd to push the Tigers ahead 3-1. However, in the bottom of that same inning, Yakult put up a 4-spot, making it look unlikely that Hanshin would clinch on this day. But just like it did all season, it came back. Kakefu hit a solo shot in the ninth and later in the inning, the team pushed across its fifth run, tying the team. The pitchers held on in the ninth and tenth, and the game was called due to time after ten innings. The final out, a grounder to pitcher Kiyooki Nakanishi, sent Hanshin’s bench in a frenzy. Grizzled veteran Kozo Kawatoh was the first on the field, and the team celebrated as all pennant winners do, by hoisting its manager Yoshio Yoshida “high in the air.” When asked about the doage (胴上げ) later, Okada said, “It was probably the worst one I’ve ever seen.”
On the next-to-last game of the season, Okada reached the 100-RBI mark, making Hanshin the first team in 35 years to have its entire cleanup (3-4-5 hitters) reach triple digits. Bass, who had hit his 54th homer of the season in the third-last game of the year, had a chance at tying Sadaharu Oh’s hallowed mark of 55 in a season. But with two games left against the Giants (managed by that same Oh), the team’s pitchers were allegedly told they would be heavily fined if they threw Bass any strikes. He walked 7 of his 8 times at bat, singling once because he wildly (and supposedly out of frustration) swung at a pitch far out of the strike zone. He would end the year with 54 home runs, good enough for the league lead and also a Triple Crown (his first of two straight).
“I got converted to the outfield this season, so I did all I could to make this a season in which I would have no regrets. To win the pennant this season, well, I’m speechless.” – Mayumi
“It still hasn’t really sunk in, but I’m sure it will soon. I’m pretty sure this game is going to be one of those games I remember for the rest of my life.” – Kakefu
“I still can’t believe it. I don’t remember anything about the game. The last thing I remember is jumping into Nakanishi’s arms.” – (catcher) Kido
“I couldn’t be happier, winning the pennant in just my second year as a pro. I’ve come to believe that if you want it bad enough, you can make anything happen.” – Ikeda
“Everyone else was crying, so I did, too. I got 3 hits in this game and I’m glad I was able to contribute to the pennant.” – Okada
“I was probably at my most intense today. The noise from the crowd gave me strength I didn’t think was possible.” – Nakanishi
“If winning the pennant is this good, I don’t think I can ever retire. It’s great to be a man.” – Kawatoh
* Pitcher Rich Gale struck out 50 times on the season. In just 75 plate appearances! By contrast, during his playing career, manager Yoshida never struck out more than 30 times in a season (and that was in 515 plate appearances). In his debut performance, Gale struck out in all 4 at bats, becoming just the second player in NPB history to start his career in that manner. The first was Giants legend Shigeo Nagashima.
* On May 6, Hanshin established an NPB record by hitting .575 (23 for 40) in a regular season game.
* Hanshin liked bunting even back then. On July 18, Katsuo Hirata tied the NPB record of 4 sacrifice bunts in the same game.
* Yoshihiro Nakata had a 4-year winning streak going (18 straight decisions) but it was broken on August 17.
* The team set an NPB record by hitting 10 doubles on September 10.
Two days after the regular season ended, Game 1 (October 26, Seibu Stadium) would be a showdown between Hanshin and the Pacific League champion Seibu Lions. Starter Chikafusa Ikeda, making his first ever postseason start, gave up just six hits and never allowed a runner past second base. On the other hand, Hanshin put the pressure on early (Mayumi leadoff double, sacrifice bunt) but were unable to score. After that, their lone legitimate chance to score came in the top of the eighth inning. Once again, Mayumi led off with a double. Anticipating a bunt, the Lions infield was drawn in, and Sumio Hirota poked one through the right side of the infield. With two runners on base, Seibu changed its pitcher. Incoming lefty Kimiyasu Kudo was to face Randy Bass, who was hitless up to this point in the game. Bass lofted a curveball on a 2-2 count high to left field. Lions outfielder Eiji Kanemori hit the wall chasing it, falling to the turf, and the ball barely cleared the wall, giving Hanshin a late lead that it would not relinquish. Ikeda became the sixth pitcher in NPB history to record a complete game shutout in his postseason debut. Final Score: Hanshin 3, Seibu 0 WP: Ikeda
Despite this series being hyped as a slugfest, the pitchers brought their A-games again in Game 2 (October 27, Seibu Stadium). Rich Gale allowed just 5 hits (including a solo home run in the third) in 7 innings of work, while the Seibu arms combined to give up just 6 hits. Unfortunately for the Lions, one of those hits was a two-run home run by Bass (this time to right). This was preceded by a fatal throwing error on a Mayumi grounder to third. With a narrow 2-1 lead, Bass showed that his bat was not his lone asset. Seibu had the tying run on third base with just one out. What looked like a potentially successful squeeze play turned into one of the best defensive plays of the series. The bunt to first was fiercely charged by Bass, who barehanded it and threw it home just in time to get the runner out. From there, Hanshin relievers Osamu Fukuma and Kiyooki Nakanishi clamped down, giving up just one hit in the final two innings. The Tigers would take a big series lead back to Koshien. Final Score: Hanshin 2, Seibu 1. WP: Gale
Strangely, both teams found their bats in a rainy Game 3 (October 29, Koshien Stadium) in the Tigers cavernous confines. Hanshin starter Yoshihiro Nakada imploded in the second inning, giving up 4 hits (and a sac bunt) to the first five batters he faced, and he found himself on the bench. The Lions charged to an early 4-run lead. But Hanshin was not ready to bow to the visiting team. Once again, in the fourth inning, the Tigers put two runners on base in front of Bass, who once again went yard on Kudo (to right again). The Lions took that one-run lead and doubled it with their first batter in the fourth, as Takanori Okamura rode a Hideaki Satoh pitch to right. The Lions added more damage in the top of the eighth with a Tsuji RBI double. Backup catcher Munehiko Shimada hit a two-out home run to left in the bottom of the ninth, but the Tigers were unable to rally back in this one. Still, when Lions manager Hirooka was interviewed after the game, he was quoted as saying, “We wish that beast would just go back to America.” Clearly, Bass had left a strong mark on his foes. Final Score: Seibu 6, Hanshin 4. LP: Nakada
The pitchers returned to the spotlight in Game 4 (October 30, Koshien Stadium). Chances were few and far between for Hanshin. The Tigers were gifted with a two-out bases loaded situation (three straight walks) in the bottom of the first, but were unable to take advantage. They returned the favor in the top of the second, giving the Lions a one-out, bases juiced chance, but again, no one crossed home safely. It took until the sixth inning for either team to break the shutout. Steve Ontiveros clouted a two-run home run in the top of the inning, and Mayumi knocked a solo homer over the left field wall in the bottom half of the frame. A sacrifice fly by Hirota knotted the game up in the bottom of the eighth, but reliever Fukuma gave up a two-out, game-winning, two-run home run in the top of the ninth to Yoshihiro Nishioka. For the first time in the series, Bass was held hitless. But he did get his third walk of the series (a number that would increase to six by the end of the series). Final Score: Seibu 4, Hanshin 2. LP: Fukuma
Until Game 5 (October 31, Koshien Stadium) the road team had prevailed in every game. But at long last, the Tigers’ strength all season came through for them. After starter Ikeda snuffed a Lions attempt at drawing first blood, Hanshin pummeled Seibu’s starter (Kazuyuki Ono) in the bottom of the inning. Mayumi and Bass got on base and Kakefu made no mistake on a 1-2 fastball, pasting it to center and giving Hanshin a 3-0 lead. They added to their lead before the end of the inning, as Katsuo Hirata brought Keiji Nagasaki home on a hit to center against reliever (!) Ishii. Seibu got one back in each of the second and third innings, but Hanshin expanded the lead again in the bottom of the fifth. Bass set the table for Nagasaki, who drove a ball over the right field wall. Again in seventh, Bass led off with a single, which led to an insurance run on a sacrifice fly. Fukuma, who had lost the game before, redeemed himself with four shutout innings in relief. Final Score: Hanshin 7, Seibu 2. WP: Fukuma
It didn’t take long to figure out that Hanshin wanted to end the series in Game 6 (November 2, Seibu Stadium). A first inning Bass walk was followed by hits by Kakefu and Okada. The bases were juiced for young Nagasaki, who pulled one over the right field wall. The four-run lead only got cut into with a leadoff solo shot in the bottom of the first. But in the top of the second, Mayumi got even with a solo shot of his own, returning the lead to 4. Once again Seibu got one back, this time on an Ontiveros double in the bottom of the fourth, but once again, Hanshin got the run back right away with a Kakefu sacrifice fly the next inning. Insurance runs (1 in the seventh on a Bass single, 2 in the ninth on a Kakefu home run) put this one well out of Seibu’s reach. They got one last run off Gale (an Akiyama RBI single) but the tall American went the distance, getting the final out on a groundout to the mound. The wait was over. The Nippon Series was over. The celebrations in Osaka would once again begin. Final Score: Hanshin 9, Seibu 3. WP: Gale
Series MVP Randy Bass hit an incredible .368 with 3 home runs and 9 RBIs, all top numbers.
Rich Gale won the Outstanding Pitcher Award, going 16 innings and allowing just 4 earned runs (2.25 ERA) and winning two games, including the last game.
Akinobu Mayumi also got recognition for his efforts (.360 average, 2 home runs), as did Keiji Nagasaki (.222 but 2 home runs and 6 RBIs).
All-Star Game: Bass (1B), Okada (2B), Kakefu (3B), Mayumi (OF), Hirata (SS), Yamamoto (P)
Randy Bass Awards/Titles: Regular Season MVP, Top Average (.350), Most Home Runs (54), Most RBIs (134), Best On-Base Percentage (.428), Most Game-Winning RBIs (22), Triple Crown, Nippon Series MVP
Best Reliever: Kiyooki Nakanishi
All-Central League Team: Bass (1B, first time), Okada (2B, first time), Kakefu (3B, seventh time), Mayumi (OF, first time)
Diamond Glove Award: Kido (C, first time), Okada (2B, first time), Kakefu (3B, sixth time), Hirata (SS, second time)