OSAKA – The Hanshin Tigers finally did it.
After suffering through a 38-year drought that felt much, much longer thanks to losing seasons, near misses and even a curse linked to Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Tigers and their fans can finally rejoice.
The wait is over. The Tigers are Japan Series champions.
Sheldon Neuse hit a three-run home run and drove in four runs, and Hanshin fans let out nearly four decades of frustration after the final out of a 7-1 win over the Orix Buffaloes in Game 7 of the Japan Series at Kyocera Dome Osaka on Sunday night.
“This is what we play for all year,” Neuse said. “I’m just happy, very thankful I’m here to get the opportunity and glad I was able to contribute.”
The Tigers won the Japan Series for the first time since 1985 — when manager Akinobu Okada was playing for the team — and for the second time in franchise history.
“I was 27 the last time,” the 65-year-old manager said. “It’s been a long time. I’m happy to have won as both a player and a manager.”
Hanshin’s famously fervent fans filled nearly half of Osaka Dome Kyocera hoping to witness a championship, and even more watched the game at a public viewing at Koshien Stadium.
The long-awaited title caps a magical season for the Tigers.
It started when the team hired Okada, who had previously managed the Tigers from 1998 to 2008, to replace Akihiro Yano. The club was head and shoulders above the rest of the Central League during the regular season and cruised to its first pennant since 2005. They also dealt with the passing of former player Shinatro Yokota, who died in July at 28 after a battle with brain cancer.
The team celebrated with his uniform on the field after Game 7, and Tigers fans sang his cheer in the stands over an hour after the win.
After sweeping past the Hiroshima Carp in the Climax Series, the Hanshin went the distance against the defending champion Buffaloes in the first all-Kansai Japan Series since 1964 to finally regain the crown.
“We wanted to play without any regrets,” Okada said. “The players worked hard and played their roles.”
The Tigers did not have a home run through the first five games of the series. Neuse was an unlikely candidate to provide the power surge with just nine in 475 at-bats during his first regular season in Japan.
He homered against Buffaloes ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto to drive in the Tigers’ only run in Game 6. He followed that with a homer against Hiroya Miyagi — Orix’s second-best pitcher — in Game 7 that will live on in franchise history.
“I didn’t think we would get a home run there,” Okada said. “We did not score any runs against Miyagi the other night (in Game 2), but I felt we would score two runs, but he hit a three-run homer.”
Tigers rookie Shota Morishita helped set the table for Neuse with a one-out single, and the Tigers put another runner on base when Miyagi hit Yusuke Oyama with a pitch.
Neuse did not let the opportunity go to waste, sending a 2-2 change-up over the wall in left field to give the Tigers a 3-0 lead.
“I had two strikes, we had runners in scoring position,” Neuse said. “I was just trying to get a base hit at that point.”
Hanshin added to the lead in the fifth. The Tigers put runners on the corners with one out and extended the lead to 6-0 after consecutive RBI singles from Morishita, Oyama and Neuse. Morishita drove in another run with a single in the eighth.
Koji Chikamoto’s bat remained hot until the very end with a 4-for-5 performance in Game 7, his third three-hit game of the series. Chikamoto finished with 13 hits and was named Japan Series MVP.
Neuse was 2-for-4 with four RBIs in Game 7. Morishita finished with three hits and two RBIs.
The win put the final nail in the coffin of the famous Curse of the Colonel, an urban legend that began with Tigers fans threw a statue of KFC founder Col. Harland Sanders into the Dotonbori River after clinching the 1985 CL pennant. The Tigers went on to win the Japan Series, but their performance on and off the diamond began to sink soon after, with many fans jokingly pinning the misfortune on the spirit of Col. Sanders, said to be anger at how the statue was treated. The statue was pulled out of the river in 2009.
The Tigers did not win another pennant until 2003. The Japan Series, however, continued to elude the team. Hanshin lost a seven-game series in 2003, and Okada’s team was swept in 2005. Hanshin lost the 2014 Japan Series in five games.
The Tigers are an institution across much of the Kansai region, and the victory likely set off celebrations far and wide, including in downtown Osaka, where fans packed into the Dontonbori district to celebrate.
The Tigers players who lived with the drought for the least amount of time did the most damage at the plate in this Japan Series.
Morishita finished his first pro season by setting a Japan Series record with seven RBIs, while Neuse finished with five. Morishita, who homered against the Carp in the opening game of the Climax Series, and Neuse were the only Tigers to hit home runs during the postseason.
The Buffaloes fell short in their quest for a second consecutive Japan Series title. Orix lost Games 4 and 5 on the road at Koshien Stadium before forcing a Game 7 behind a 14-strikeout performance by Yamamoto on Saturday.
“They are strong,” Okada said. “These games could have gone either way until the very end.”
Miyagi, the winning pitcher in Game 7 in last season’s Japan Series, was charged with five runs in 4⅔ innings on Sunday. Miyagi had retired 10 straight batters before giving up the single that led to the Tigers’ big inning in the fourth.
Yuma Tongu hit a solo homer in the ninth to get the Buffaloes on the board.
The Buffaloes showed class in defeat, bowing to their fans in right field before going to the other side and bowing and tipping their caps to the Tigers fans.
Source : Japan Times