And then there were two.
The Orix Buffaloes, the jokes of the Pacific League for much of the last two decades, beat a good SoftBank Hawks team to book their second straight trip to the Japan Series against the Yakult Swallows, who earned their berth on Friday.
We also had more managing news as Hanshin waited less than 24 hours since their playoff exit to announce their new old manager, while Kodai Senga began singing “Free at last, Free at last,” and Shintaro Fujinami asked why some players find it so hard to leave Japan.
Buffaloes 3, Hawks 2: At Osaka Dome, Keita Nakagawa singled in the winning run in the ninth inning on a two-out 2-2 pitch off Cuban closer Livan Moinelo, to break a 2-2 tie and clinch the PL foreplay series final stage 4-1 for Orix, with one of the Buffaloes’ wins the one they received as league champs before the first pitch was thrown.
The game started as a tasty starting pitching matchup but after both starters left hurt, it developed into a battle of the bullpens.
Taisuke Yamaoka‘s masterful start was cut to four innings after he took a batted ball of his left shin in the top of the fourth inning, and Masataka Yoshida broke up the scoreless game with a two-run homer off Tsuyoshi Wada in the bottom of the inning.
Wada cruised through the first two innings, but was worn down by leadoff man Shuhei Fukuda‘s 11-pitch at-bat in the third. After he stranded two runners in the inning, Nakagawa put a good swing on an 0-1 slider for a leadoff single in the fourth. I’ll wager that Wada’s 0-1 changeup to Yoshida missed as badly as any pitch the lefty has thrown in his life, and the Orix slugger put the lifeless pitch at the letters into the fourth deck in center field.
Yamaoka had sought treatment in the fourth after taking a batted ball off his left shin. He allowed back-to-back two-out singles before getting out of the inning and leaving the scoreless game.
Wada, too, left hurt. After a scratch leadoff single in the fifth, he appeared to hurt his ankle throwing out the lead runner on the ensuing sacrifice.
Two sixth-inning walks by Hawks reliever Keisuke Izumi nearly wrecked the game, but with two outs and the outfield playing shallow, center fielder Taisei Makihara saved two runs by racing back to rob Yuma Tongu of a double with an over-the-shoulder catch just shy of the track.
The visitors, however, caught up a few minutes later. Hard-throwing Soichiro Yamazaki walked Yuki Yanagita with one out in the seventh, and Alfredo Despaigne stayed on a good fastball that missed up and drove it out for his first homer of the series.
Orix again nearly put this one to bed in the eighth, but Koya Fujii pitched out of a two-out bases-loaded jam. Orix reliever Shota Abe got the job done in the top of the ninth, but Moinelo put two on with two outs to set up Nakagawa’s game winner.
“I was relieved he decided the game there,” Orix manager Satoshi Nakajima said. “It meant I wouldn’t have to figure out who to use in relief in extra innings.”
Tigers announce Okada as their next skipper
The Tigers announced 64-year-old Akinobu Okada as their next manager on Saturday, bringing him back for the first time since he unexpectedly quit after Hanshin crashed out of the playoffs in 2008. Okada has a career managing record of 581-521-39. His .561 winning percentage as Tigers skipper is second best among guys managing Hanshin for 500 or more games.
In his first stint, Okada was bumped up from the farm team to take over after Senichi Hoshino quit due to his health. Hoshino suffered a minor cardiac issue in the summer of 2003 that he recovered from despite an original diagnosis that his condition was chronic. As happens with minor league managers, he got a boost from some under-employed minor league talent and steered Hanshin to the CL pennant in 2005.
After leaving the Tigers, where he’d played most of his career, he managed Orix, where he’d wrapped up his playing days, running the Buffaloes from 2010 to 2012.
As I’ve written before, Okada exhibited a real talent for dealing good naturedly with the Tigers’ predatory media and keeping his players from becoming public scapegoats. He had tremendous success with his bullpen, but will not have the luxury of an offense built around superstar Tomoaki Kanemoto this time.
Senga is free at last
Within minutes of being eliminated from the postseason, Kodai Senga reminded everyone of his plan to be a former SoftBank Hawks ace pitching in MLB next year.
“I’ve been saying I’m going to go for the past six years,” he said. “So this is nothing new. I’m absolutely filing for free agency.”
Senga has been pleading with SoftBank to post him these past years, but he has been rebuffed at every turn as the Hawks remain the only NPB team to have never used the posting system to move a player.
Tigers to post Fujinami
For the first time in years, the Hanshin Tigers ostensibly will not have to concern themselves with the question about what to do with talented, but inconsistent pitcher Shintaro Fujinami.
The right-hander, considered the top pitching prospect in NPB’s 2013 draft, ahead of Shohei Ohtani, revealed this summer that last autumn he asked the Tigers to post him. On Saturday, the Tigers said they would.
Someone is sure to bid something for Fujinami, and the Tigers will likely be able to pocket a million dollars or two without having to worry about the prospect of his succeeding with another Japanese team — a constant concern that snuffs out most trades before they begin.