|(pictures from the Fighters website)|
I was at the Seibu Dome on Sept 27-28 for the adventures of clinching the Pacific League though, and should write that up sometime. But everything else I've had to experience from the US during my precious waking hours.
Those final playoff games were a doozy -- Game 5, on Oct 15th, happened right after a Meiji-Waseda game where Yuya Yanagi got 19 strikeouts in 12 innings in his last weekend before the draft, and so I switched over to the Fighters, and then the Hawks kept hitting home runs and chipping away at Takanashi, and eventually won the game 5-2, with my highlights being getting to see Kagiya and Hakumura pitch a few innings.
Game 6, unlike game 5, had the Hawks go up 4-0 in one inning instead of in 4 innings, pretty much beating up rookie starter Takayuki Katoh. But Anthony Bass came in and pitched four scoreless innings to hold off the Hawks while the Fighters waited for Tadashi Settsu to lose his curveball and start giving up runs. Kensuke Tanaka hadn't really hit at all in the playoffs so he was benched in favor of Kenshi Sugiya who not only fielded well but also hit the Fighters second RBI (the first was a Sho Nakata solo homer). In the 4th inning, with the bases loaded, Hiromi Oka pinch-hit for Shota Ohno, which seemed like a weird move, but then he hit a double to center which scored the tying runs, and the Fighters went up 5-4 immediately after on a squeeze bunt by Takuya Nakashima, which was kind of ironically perfect as the Hawks had ruined our night on Sept 27th by going up 3-2 on the Marines on a squeeze play.
The rest of Game 6 belonged to Shohei Ohtani, who not only hit a double in the 5th inning and scored on the Kensuke Kondoh hit that brought the game to 7-4, but, also, Ohtani impossibly came into the game to close it out pitching in the 9th inning. And almost every pitch he threw was over 160 km/h, including two of them hitting 165 km/h, which is a new speed record in Japan. (I'm not even sure why the Fighters keep making new merch every time he does this. I haven't bought any because duh.)
There was a week off between the playoffs and the Japan Series, during which the draft happened. The only real update there is that Fighters' 6th-round pick Yujiro Yamaguchi has said he's not going to join the team because he's pissed at getting picked lower than 4th. Whether or not you believe him on that being the real reason, or whether or not you think this is broken or not, please respect my right to call him a dumbass and be annoyed at him. Thanks. That's all I really feel like saying on the subject. It's kind of silly, though, that since 2000 there have been 5 normal-round picks to turn down their teams, and 3/5 have been Fighters, and 2/5 have been goddamn Hisayoshi Chono.
Anyway. Did I mention that the Fighters won the Japan Series?
I really truly honestly didn't get to see or follow most of the games. The first two were in Hiroshima, and the Fighters lost both of them 5-1 -- this was bizarre enough that on Sunday morning when I woke up and looked at the score I had to make sure I had loaded the right page, but no, it really was Ohtani vs. Kris Johnson in the first game and Masui vs. Yusuke Nomura in the second.
Johnson, by the way, won the Sawamura award this year, first time a foreigner had won it since Gene Bacque in 1964. I feel like this along with Balentien's home run record a few years ago is kind of showing that NPB, and maybe Japan as a whole, may be slightly more accepting of foreigners than before. Not really much, but just a tiny tiny tiny bit. And every tiny tiny bit helps.
(Now, to be honest, this was the first year EVER in the past decade that there weren't a few scattered racist morons that treated me like a dumb foreigner at Fighters games. But that's also because I became pretty famous after spring training in Arizona. So instead of getting "Oh... where are you from? Oh, do you like Fighters?" in broken bad English from people in the stands, I got a lot of "OMG YOU'RE THE GIRL FROM ARIZONA WHO WAS ON TV ALL THE TIME!")
The Fighters went back to Sapporo for Games 3-5, and won all of them! Game 3 involved a walkoff RBI hit by Ohtani in the 10th inning to win it 4-3, and Game 4 involved a huge Brandon Laird go-ahead 2-run homer to win it 3-1, and Game 5 involved, amazingly, a walkoff grand slam by Haruki Nishikawa, the second in Japan Series history (the first being the Swallows' Toru Sugiura in Game 1 of the 1992 Japan Series). It should also be noted that Takayuki Katoh only gave up 1 run in the first inning but also got pulled pretty quickly to let Luis Mendoza hold up the fort for most of the game.
Now here's the thing: the home team had won all of the first 5 games, and we were going back to Hiroshima, so I wasn't feeling all too good about that. The first Japan Series I ever followed was 2003 when the Hawks and Tigers faced off and the home team won every game in that series as well.
However, this year was different!
I actually watched the first 4 innings of Game 6 -- not because I wanted to be awake, but because I was having some acid reflux issues combined with failing to swallow an antacid pill properly, and so I was way too uncomfortable to sleep and having esophageal spasms. So, I found a site streaming the game, although it was very choppy, and watched as the Fighters went up 1-0 in the first inning on a Haruki Nishikawa triple and an infield blooping hit by Hiromi Oka. And I also watched as the Carp went up 2-1 in the second inning on a wild pitch by Masui and an error by Brandon Laird.
Note: Game 6 was Masui vs Nomura, which people seemed confused about, ie, why leave aces Kuroda and Ohtani until Game 7? But I think it was a solid move on both sides. (And I feel a little bit bad that my job since 2007 Koshien seems to be watching Yusuke Nomura lose really important games.)
Anyway, there were more Haruki triples and hits and the Fighters went up 4-2 in the top of the 4th, and Kuriyama pulled Masui super early so I even got to see Kagiya pitch the bottom of the 4th, and I saw him pitching a scoreless inning culminating in striking out Takahiro Arai. By then my stomach had calmed down enough to sleep, so I went to sleep. It was 4:30 in the morning and I had to be up at 8:30 to go meet friends up in San Francisco anyway, so it was just as well.
When I woke up four hours later, I saw the final box score. The Fighters won 10-4! Holy crap! It looks like Jay Jackson just had a very very bad 8th inning pitching for the Carp, and Brandon Laird hit a grand slam, which cemented him as the series MVP.
(You should just read Jason Coskrey's article about the game, since he was actually there and all.)
Today I seriously dug my 2006 Nippon Series Champions t-shirt out of the depths of my random Fighters crap and wore it around San Francisco. I cannot believe it's been 10 years since the last time the Fighters won the Japan Series, and how very much my life has changed since then. It really has been a pretty insane adventure since then. It was during the 2006 postseason that I had an ongoing bizarre AIM conversation with then-Japan-Times-writer Stephen Ellsesser that made me decide I was going to move to Japan to write about baseball one way or the other, and that's what I ended up doing, quitting my cushy software engineering job to go teach English in Tokyo and travel the country watching baseball. I remember spending the entirety of October 2006 writing about the Fighters on this blog and thinking nobody out there really cared -- this was, after all, before Twitter, before Reddit, mostly before Facebook even, and before you could see live streams of games. Now there's a pretty wide NPB audience online in English.
I still can't believe how much kindness I've been shown by the Fighters and the Fighters fans over the past decade, though. While there have certainly been a few rocky moments here and there, overall it has been the most incredible time of my life. I love coming back to Kamagaya every year and feeling like I'm stopping off at home to visit my family. Same for going to the Sapporo Dome. There are basically two places in Japan that I feel like I really belong there, and one is behind the dugout of a Tokyo Big 6 team with my camera and my friends there, and the other is in the middle of a Fighters cheering section.
I ordered a few of the championship goods from the Fighters site but I won't get them for a few months. Hopefully they'll show up in time to wear to Arizona spring training next year :) And wow, I really can't wait to see everyone there again. It's going to be even more crazy this time around!