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Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010

BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Playoff jinx bedevils Fukuoka faithful once again


The team colors are yellow and black, but the adopted color is red and, when the final out was recorded of the Pacific League Climax Series last week, Fukuoka fans were blue-shocking blue. Their team had just completed a stunning collapse after it appeared headed for its first Japan Series appearance in seven years.

The Softbank Hawks were riding high after winning the regular season pennant, coming from behind to knock off the front-running Seibu Lions, and they had that one-game advantage plus the home field for the entire CS finals.

After dropping the first game of the PLCS to the Chiba Lotte Marines, the Hawks came back to win two in a row and were within one game of wrapping up the series, but they lost.

What the heck happened?

For one thing, the Softbank offense suddenly lost its power punch. During the six-game series, the Hawks were outscored by the Marines 20-9. Lotte hit five home runs while the home team had none, and the Fukuoka's composite batting average was just .169.

The first and last game starter Toshiya Sugiuchi and the usually reliable bullpen, perhaps rusty from a 10-day layoff between the final regular season game on Sept. 26 and Game 1 of the CS on Oct. 9, were uncharacteristically ineffective.

Most notably and mysteriously, setup man Brian Falkenborg could not get the Marines hitters out as he had done all season. Falkenborg gave up only seven earned runs in 62 innings during the regular schedule, posting a 1.02 ERA. Working in Games 5 and 6 of the Climax Series, he gave up five earned runs in two innings for a 22.50 ERA.

Sugiuchi, a 16-game winner on the season, simply did not have his usual stuff and went 0-2 in the playoff round, putting up a 5.73 ERA.

In the two games where the Hawks came out on top, ace Tsuyoshi Wada, with a regular season 17-8 record, and D.J. Houlton were the winning pitchers, but it was not easy. Wada survived a 39-pitch first inning in Game 2 and went on to strike out 13 Marines and earn a 3-1 complete game victory.

Houlton did not allow a run during the 5 2/3 innings he worked in Game 3 and earned the win in that 1-0 game in which the only Softbank run came in the first inning without the benefit of a hit.

As has been well documented, the Hawks have been a lousy postseason team since the Pa League inaugurated playoffs in 2004. They have not been to the Japan Series since winning the pennant in a playoff-less 2003, despite finishing first in the regular season three times.

The Daiei-Softbank franchise is 1-6 all-time in playoff series, winning only the first stage in 2006, and 9-17 in playoff games.

Is it a jinx?

Certainly the hometown crowd support was there this time. More than 33,000 fans attended each of the six games of the CS finals against Lotte; an estimated 95 percent of them Softbank fans wearing red jerseys or T-shirts which have become the identifier of the Hawks rooters.

On the way into the stadium, fans were given red flags as well so, whenever the home team scored, the stands turned into a sea of scarlet.

The red gear was so popular, the supply of the jerseys and tees sold out before Game 3 of the Climax Series finals. Not only were the spectators wearing red at the games, but also people all over Fukuoka City donned the special wear.

Wait staff in restaurants and coffee shops, department store clerks, taxi and bus drivers, workers at the airport and the main train stations at Hakata and Tenjin got into the sprit, but still the Hawks went down to defeat.

Perhaps some may be comforted by the catch phrase the old Brooklyn Dodgers used to get through the winters after losing so many World Series to the archrival New York Yankees in the 1940s and early '50s: "Wait 'Til Next Year." Sugiuchi, Falkenborg and the cleanup hitters who slumped at the wrong time will be back.

Meanwhile, I cannot end without a word about the Chiba Lotte Marines who fought to make the playoffs at the end of the regular season, wiped out the Seibu Lions in the first stage of the Climax Series with a pair of exciting, come-from-behind, extra-inning victories, then eliminated Softbank.

They overcame the Bobby Valentine soap opera, and first-year manager Norifumi Nishimura should take a bow. Now, let's see if Chiba can sustain the momentum against the Chunichi Dragons in the Japan Series beginning Saturday.

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The Baseball Bullet-In returns to Sundays on Nov. 7 after a week off.



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