Since the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks snatched their third straight Japan Series title on October 23, 2019 at Tokyo Dome, two interlocking storylines have hovered above the rest.
The Hawks’ perpetual quest to remain on top collides with the Giants’ hunger to avenge last season’s four-game sweep in the Japan Series.
Thirteen months later, the storied Nippon Professional Baseball franchises are back in the spotlight of the championship series once again.
This time, it starts at Osaka’s Kyocera Dome, where the Giants are the “home team” for Games 1 and 2 and, if necessary, Games 6 and 7.
The series opener, set for 6:10 p.m. on Saturday, November 21, is a familiar setting for Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo, who has guided owner Masayoshi Son’s team to four titles (2015, 2017-19) since taking over as manager in 2015.
Why won’t the Giants be hosting games in the friendly confines of Tokyo Dome?
The Japan Amateur Baseball Association’s 91st Intercity Baseball Tournament will be staged at Tokyo Dome starting on Sunday, November 22 and continuing until November 30.
Regardless of where the games will be played in this best-of-seven series, Giants manager Tatsunori Hara can’t erase the memory of last season’s Japanese Fall Classic from his mind.
“I haven’t forgotten of course,” the 62-year-old Hara, who’s in his third stint as skipper (2002-03, 2006-15 and again since 2019), was quoted as saying by Sports Hochi this week.
By ousting the Giants in four games last year, the Hawks kept Hara’s resume intact as a three-time Japan Series winner (2002, 2009, 2012), meaning Kudo enters the 2020 showdown with one more title as a manager on his shiny resume. (In his playing days, Kudo, a left-handed pitcher, was a part of a 11 title-winning clubs, including eight times with the powerhouse Seibu Lions for whom he made his NPB debut in 1981, the same year that Hara played his first game for Yomiuri. Kudo retired in 2010.)
Hawks Vying For a Fourth Consecutive Title
In a shortened season whose start was pushed back from March to June due to the COVID-19 pandemic, SoftBank had the top record (73-42-5) in the 12-team NPB.
The Hawks won the Pacific League regular-season title, then advanced to the Japan Series by closing out the PL Climax Series against the Chiba Lotte Marines on November 15. The Hawks triumphed 6-4 in Game 2, with Akira Nakamura smacking a pair of two-run home runs in the win.
The Hawks began the series with an automatic one-win advantage as the PL regular-season champions, so they made quick work of the Marines and shifted the focus to their next foe.
“Nakamura’s two home runs were really wonderful,” Kudo said after the game, according to Kyodo News. “Our relievers pitched like they wanted to win no matter what and not allow a hit, and that led to our victory.
“I want us to do our best and win our fourth straight [Japan Series] championship.”
This year, Hawks ace Kudai Senga, who led the PL in ERA (2.16) and was tied with teammate Shuta Ishikawa and Hideaki Wakui of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden for the most wins (11) in the league, earned the victory in Game 1 of the 2019 Japan Series. He limited the Giants to one run over seven sharp innings in the Hawks’ 7-2 triumph.
SoftBank followed Senga’s tone-setting effort with 6-3, 6-2 and 4-3 victories in succession to close out the series.
In the title-clinching game, Hawks closer Yuito Mori fanned Giants star Hayato Sakamoto for the final out.
And again this year, for the Hawks, relying on the team’s roster depth, abundance of talent and championship experience is a winning formula.
Led by Senga, who struck out 149 batters to tie Orix Buffaloes flamethrower Yoshinobu Yamamoto for the PL lead, the pitching staff is also bolstered by a strong bullpen. Mori had a PL-best 32 saves, with Cuban lefty Livan Monelo providing 38 holds and a sparkling 1.68 ERA, and Rei Takahashi recording 23 holds.
Outfielder star Yuki Yanagita was No. 2 in the PL in batting (.342) with 29 homers and 86 RBIs. It was a typical Yanagita season. Among the other big boppers in the batting lineup, Ryoya Kurihara and Nobuhiro Matsuda smacked 17 and 13 homers, respectively.
Catcher Takuya Kai’s defensive presence behind home plate is another pivotal reason for the Hawks’ sustained excellence. Blessed with a rifle arm, admiringly called “Kai Cannon” by those within the organization and Hawks fans, the 2018 Japan Series MVP is a thorn in the side of would-be base stealers.
A Closer Look at the Giants
With veteran hurler Tomoyuki Sugano (14-2, 1.97 ERA) at the absolute top of his game this season, the Giants have a formidable leader on the mound. The same is true of dugout general Hara, who revived title expectations upon his return to the leadership post before the 2019 campaign.
Look for Sugano to match wits with Senga in an enticing Game 1 pitching matchup.
Sugano was the Game 4 loser a year ago in the Giants’ most recent playoff game.
The Central League opted against holding a Climax Series after this year’s regular season wrapped up, so the Giants are the more well-rested team.
Will that be a big factor?
The Hawks will have had five days off between the Climax Series and the start of the Japan Series, and travel from Fukuoka to Osaka is not an exhausting, epic journey.
Like Hara, Sugano, a fiery competitor, certainly hasn’t forgotten that he was unable to win the game that could have extended the 2019 Japan Series beyond the minimum number of games.
He has been brilliant this season, making 20 starts over 137 1/3 innings. He held foes to 97 hits and struck out 131. He walked 25.
The Giants rely on Sakamoto, who collected his 2,000th career hit on November 8, to provide an offensive punch. He was the team’s leading hitter with the 10th-best batting average (.289) in the CL along with 19 homers and 65 RBIs.
Veteran mainstay Yoshihiro Maru whacked 27 homers and knocked in 77 runs while batting .284 and appearing in all 120 games. Fellow slugger Kazuma Okamoto hit a solid .275 with 31 homers and 26 doubles and 97 RBIs.
Revisiting the 2019 Japan Series
The Giants own a record 22 Japan Series titles, but only four in the 21st century. On the other hand, the Hawks have built a dynasty during Son’s ownership of the team, which began in 2005, with six titles since 2011.
A year ago, the Hawks capitalized on big offensive opportunity after big offensive opportunity in pouncing on the Giants.
SoftBank outscored Yomiuri 23-10 in the four games. The Hawks rapped out 32 hits to the Giants’ 22.
What’s more, Kudo’s crew outscored Hara’s club 7-0 in the fourth inning and 8-1 in the seventh.
In other words, the Hawks pounced on both the Giants starters and relievers.
The four-game sweep turned into a showcase for the overall excellence of the Hawks’ pitchers and hitters.
It also reminded anyone paying attention of SoftBank’s stellar fielders.
The Hawks made one error in those four games; the Giants committed four.
Too many mistakes for the Giants.
After all, to beat the Hawks in a long series, near perfection is at the top of the to-do list.