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Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011
Hawks overcame obstacles to win title
FUKUOKA — Mission accomplished.
The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks are the 2011 NPB champions.
Although they were forced to play a decisive seventh game in the Japan Series, the Hawks displayed dominance on the diamond throughout the year.
The Hawks were triumphant during interleague play, in the Pacific League pennant race, the PL Climax Series and the Japan Series.
They beat each of the other 11 ballclubs and finished 17½ games ahead of the second-place Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the PL standings.
The Hawks had the batting champion in Seiichi Uchikawa, the stolen base king in Yuichi Honda and co-winningest pitcher in D.J. Houlton.
Yes, Softbank pretty much had a perfect season. And there was no doubt, the Kyushu club was deserving of the NPB title.
Was it an easy year for the Hawks? No. The Hawks overcame a massive amount of pressure only they could.
Just listen to what manager Koji Akiyama had to say after Game 7 of the Japan Series, which wrapped up the franchise's fifth NPB championship.
"Without a doubt, I had a feeling of a relief," said Akiyama, who broke into tears on the field after his team clinched the title on Sunday. "We've been fighting for the championship all year, but we had to play in the (Japan Series) that could've gone either way. So I'm relieved that we've been able to become the best in Japan."
The Hawks also had to deal with a series of injuries throughout the year.
Uchikawa missed 30 games due to a right hamstring injury, while veterans Hiroki Kokubo and Nobuhiko Matsunaka were also sidelined with injuries.
But each time, other players filled those roles, with youngsters, such as Shuhei Fukuda and Kenji Akashi, while their superb pitching corps helped the team's consistency.
"Well, as the result, it ended up in that way," Akiyama said of his team's championship run. "But we played a lot of tough games during the season.
"While the players, stagehands, coaches and the ballclub maintained the mind-set to win the Japan Series title throughout the year, we were able to cover each other when we had injuries. It was so huge for our run."
And obviously, the Chunichi Dragons gave Softbank its final, and most difficult, challenge in the end at the Japan Series.
"The championship could've gone to either team," said Akiyama, who took the reins in 2009. "Chunichi's got strong pitching and they got to this point based on that, and we struggled scoring runs against them. But we were still able to prevail and it's so rewarding."
Meanwhile, for some of the veterans, the championship had a different meaning compared to titles won in the past.
Shortstop Munenori Kawasaki was on the 2003 championship team, which was owned by Daiei. But it was the first year he established himself on the top team and in starting lineup. He recalled everything moved so quickly then.
"I forgot about eight years ago," Kawasaki said. "What I barely remember is, I was just trying to follow elder players' leading and we won the championship, while I wasn't really sure what was going on.
"But this time, I saw younger players were so nervous, and I thought it's the same as how I was eight years ago. Yet, I was so moved in the end."
Kokubo also wasn't able to fully share the joy of the '03 title.
He tore his ACL in the preseason and was out for the entire year. So Kokubo's prior Japan Series appearance actually came in 2000, when the team lost to the Yomiuri Giants.
The 40-year-old Kokubo, who was named MVP after this year's Japanese Fall Classic, ran onto the field after the final out of Game 7 like a rookie.
"I got too excited and almost had an oxygen shortage," he said. "So I went to the mound almost stumbling."
Kokubo also said that he was happy for owner Masayoshi Son, who purchased the club in 2004 and has always cherished it.
"This is the first championship since owner Son bought the team. I was pleased that we could toss him in the air in the doage (victory toss) to give him a bit of payback."