Bold indicates league leaders
Bold indicates league leaders
Despite losing the season opener, Hanshin got off to a solid start in 2005. Three straight series wins had the team headed in the right direction out of the gates, although a slight slump at the end of April (series loss to Chunichi followed by a sweet at the hand of the Swallows) left the team in third place and just a game over .500 on the 30th. However, Norihiro Akahoshi batted an impressive .365 and scored 24 runs to earn himself Central League Player of the Month. On April 21st at Tokyo Dome, Kyuji Fujikawa came in relief and with the bases loaded, struck out legend Kazuhiro Kiyohara (who had 499 career homers at the time) on a fork ball. Incensed at the pitch selection, Kiyohara blew up postgame, questioning in no uncertain terms whether or not Kyuji was a man. It may not have entirely been because of this comment, but Kyuji started to use his “fireball” fastball to get hitters out after this.
May brought about the first interleague games in NPB history. In the seven three-game series Hanshin had in May against Pacific League teams, they went 13-7-1 through May 30, and by month’s end, made their way to the top of the Central League standings. Tomoaki Kanemoto, who batted an incredible .404 on the month, took home CL Player of the Month for May.
A 1-3-1 start to June was followed by an amazing 13-4 record the remainder of the month. An injury to Akahoshi (which turned out to be a broken bone) put a scare into Hanshin fans, but he only missed one game. The story of the month was the relief squad, especially the work of Fujikawa, who recorded holds in 17 straight mound appearances (from June 14-July 20). He would receive CL Pitcher of the Month honors for his impressive relief work.
The team continued to roll in July, as the veteran hitters (Atsushi Kataoka and Shinjiro Hiyama, among others) were clutch. Also, import Andy Sheets opened the second half of the schedule with 10 RBIs in 4 games (including a 3-bomb night), and all the pitchers continued to throw the ball extremely well.
Not even the team’s annual August road schedule could slow down its momentum. Despite the second place Chunichi Dragons charging fiercely (winning 11 straight games coming into the month), Hanshin finished its “Road of Death” road trip with a winning record for the first time in 11 seasons, and despite its lead in the standings being reduced to a few games, the team’s chances at the pennant were fairly good heading into the final month of play.
The return to Koshien and a shot at glory fired the team up. It went 9-1 to start September, extending its lead significantly. The key game during that stretch (and some would say of the season) took place in Nagoya on September 7. With Hanshin up 2-1, Kentaro Sekimoto hit an RBI single to right. A second runner tried to score but was called out. Despite the protest that he reached under the catcher and touched the dish first, the play on the field stood, and Hanshin took a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the 9th. The usually dependable Tomoyuki Kubota gave up a couple of hits, putting himself in a jam. A grounder to second was thrown home. The call at the plate: safe. Manager Akinobu Okada lost it. He bumped the umpire and then called his players off the field, refusing to finish the game. Eighteen minutes later, play resumed. Chunichi tied it up and then on a rare error by Akahoshi, the team found itself on the verge of a walkoff loss and their lead in the standings would have decreased to one. Runners on second and third with just one out. They elected to load the bases, walking the next batter intentionally. Then Okada visited the mound. “Let them hit the ball. If we lose, it’s my fault. I’ll take the blame.” Kubota blew the next two batters away with all fastballs. In the top of the 11th, the same runner who got called out in the top of the 9th came to the plate. On a full count, he got his revenge. His deep blast to left would be the winner, and Hanshin escaped a potentially fatal implosion.
Later in the month, five straight wins put them in a place to clinch at home against the much-hated (but struggling) Yomiuri Giants on September 29. Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi was the starter, and he kept the Giants in check all game. After six innings of shutout ball, he stepped off the mound with a lead, and the game was left in the hands of the team’s soon-to-be-legendary relief trio, JFK*. The result was fairly predictable. Hanshin won 5-1, and for the second time in three seasons, the Central League was won by the Tigers.
* JFK takes the initials of relievers Jeff Williams, Fujikawa and Kubota. Though the three didn’t always appear in this order, Kubota was the closer on most nights, and opponents definitely felt that if they didn’t have a lead by the sixth inning, they could kiss the game goodbye. Hanshin would go an amazing 39-6-4 when all three pitched in the same game. The tandem would remain a fixture on the team for four seasons, and their worst combined ERA during that stretch was 2.33 (and Fujikawa’s worst was 1.63 during those 4 seasons).
The Pacific League already had a playoff format in place, while the Central League still sent its regular season leader to the Nippon Series. The regular season ended on October 5 for Hanshin, but the series against the second-place PL champion Chiba Lotte Marines did not start until October 22. The regular season interleague games between these teams were fairly closely fought, with Lotte taking two of three on their home turf in May and then splitting the series at Koshien (1-1-1) in June. But this series would be anything but close. The hardest-core Hanshin fans know that 334 is a number that has gone down in infamy in team history. (The reason will be explained in the series conclusion.)
Game 1 (October 22, Chiba Marine Stadium) started well for the home team. With one out in the bottom of the first, third baseman Imae hit a solo shot off of Hanshin starter Igawa. It took until the top of the fifth for Hanshin to respond, as Fujimoto hit a sacrifice fly to score a run and tie the score. It didn’t take long for the Marines to fight back, however. The bottom of that inning saw four straight hits (including a push bunt by Lotte Speed Star Tsuyoshi Nishioka) and three men cross home plate. The next inning, Lotte knocked Igawa out of the game with another home run, but then wreaked havoc on Hanshin reliever Hashimoto in the seventh. Two multi-run home runs pushed the Marines into double digits. Somehow, nature saw what was happening and took pity on Hanshin. A thick fog rolled in and made the game unplayable. So with one out in the bottom of the seventh, the game abruptly ended. Final Score: Lotte 10, Hanshin 1
Things did not get any better in Game 2 (October 23, Chiba Marine Stadium). Yuya Andoh started for the Tigers and gave up a run in the bottom of the first (caused by Imaoka’s error) and another in the second. The difference stayed the same until the sixth inning when a barrage of Lotte hits turned this one into a laugher (for the winning team). The Marines added three more in the bottom of the eighth, and for the second consecutive game, reached double digits. Hanshin mustered just 4 hits all night, and could have benefited from more fog before the game turned into such an embarrassment. Final Score: Lotte 10, Hanshin 0
Not even a return to Koshien for Game 3 (October 25) could stop Hanshin’s bleeding. Lotte took a one-run lead in the top of the second on a double, wild pitch and sacrifice fly. The Tigers brought the game back to square one in the bottom of the frame when Imaoka scored on a Sekimoto grounder. However, two innings later, Lotte struck back with two more runs, putting Hanshin starter Shimoyanagi back in a hole. Fujikawa entered the game in relief, and held off the Marines for a couple of innings, but was also the lead pitcher in of one of the worst innings in Nippon Series history. When the dust settled, Lotte had its third consecutive double-digit game and a commanding 3-0 series lead. Final Score: Lotte 10, Hanshin 1
In Game 4 (October 26, Koshien Stadium), Hanshin had a shot at taking an early lead, but with no outs and runners on first and second, it came up blank. Lotte responded with two runs in the top of the next inning. Two innings later, it expanded its lead by another run. Hanshin blew chances in the 4th and 5th innings with rally-killing double plays, and in the sixth, finally got on the scoreboard. Imaoka’s bloop single scored a run, and Hiyama’s opposite field single scored another. Down just one, the team used its formulaic JFK relievers to hold Lotte down. Unfortunately, the bats could not come through. In the 9th, with a runner on first and no outs, Yano popped up a sacrifice bunt attempt and the runner at first got thrown out for the team’s 4th double play of the night. Fujimoto struck out swinging to end the season on a sour note. Final Score: Lotte 3, Hanshin 2
Series Facts: Hanshin became the first team to never hold a lead during the entire Nippon Series. It also took until the fourth game of the series for the team to get an RBI hit (its first two runs came on a sacrifice fly and a ground out). This was the first Nippon Series since 1998 to be held entirely outdoors, and there has not been such a series since (as of the end of 2016). Lotte became the first team in NPB history to win the Nippon Series with an American (Bobby Valentine) as its manager. Lotte also became the first team in NPB history to record three consecutive double-digit games in the Nippon Series. For its part, Hanshin ended up with ignominious records: fewest runs (4), worst ERA (8.64), fewest home runs (0). The aggregate score for the series was 33-4, and the number (334 or 33-4) has gained notoriety among Hanshin and Lotte fans on the Internet. (Case in point: I saw one Hanshin fan cursing his receipt when the items he bought totaled ¥666. Not because it’s the number of the beast, but because he paid with a thousand-yen note, so his change was – you guessed it – ¥334.)
League MVP: Tomoaki Kanemoto
Most RBIs: Makoto Imaoka (147)
Most Stolen Bases: Norihiro Akahoshi (60)
Most Wins: Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi (15)
Best Win Percentage: Yuya Andoh (.688)
Outstanding Mid-Reliever: Kyuji Fujikawa
All-Star Team: Fujikawa (RP, first time), Shimoyanagi (P, fourth time), Yano (C, fifth time), Fujimoto (2B, second time), Imaoka (3B, fifth time), Toritani (SS, first time), Akahoshi (OF, second time), Kanemoto (OF, eighth time)
All-Central League Team: Yano (C, second time), Imaoka (3B, first time), Akahoshi (OF, second time), Kanemoto (OF, fifth time)
Golden Glove Award: Yano (C, second time), Sheets (1B, first time), Akahoshi (OF, fourth time)
Fighting Spirit Award (Nippon Series): Akihiro Yano (.417 avg, hits in all 4 games)