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Saturday, Oct. 14, 2006

SPORTS SCOPE

Baseball scribe breaks down exciting Pa League second stage


SAPPORO -- Here is a look back at the second-stage Pacific League playoffs, in which the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters swept the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in two games, winning the series 3-0 under the PL postseason's new format, which gives the No. 1 seed a one-game advantage before the series begins.

Stephen Ellsesser

IN A SENTENCE: The Fighters dominated from the mound and did just enough to break Softbank's back each night.

THE TIDE TURNED WHEN: Makoto Kaneko drove in a run that made it 3-1 in the eighth inning of Game 1. With an insurance run and Nippon Ham's bullpen, the Hawks weren't going to battle back from two runs down that late. Once the Fighters went up 2-0 in the series, their PL coronation became only a matter of time.

THE "WOW" FACTOR: Nippon Ham's fans. More than 42,000 people piled into Sapporo Dome each night, and the Hawks' fans may have numbered close to 100 . . . if you count attendance on both days, trainers and any likeness of Harry the Hawk. When Softbank's biggest jet fusen of the series boasts six balloons, you know you're not in Kyushu anymore. It would be difficult to imagine a more lopsided fan distribution.

News photo
Fighters left-handed pitcher Tomoya Yagi, a rookie, shows his smile on the mound in Game 2 of the second stage of the Pacific League playoffs against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks at Sapporo Dome on Thursday. KYODO PHOTO

STAR IN THE MAKING: Hichori Morimoto. Nippon Ham's left fielder and leadoff hitter has a good personality, and the kid is the Albert Pujols of Japan, not because of his godlike statistics (.285 batting average, 42 RBIs, 13 stolen bases) but for this reason: As is the case with Pujols, if you don't love watching Morimoto play ball, you may be a lot of things, but you're not a baseball fan. The way he ran down everything in the outfield, the fervor exhibited as he scored the winning run in Game 2 -- it's all in there.

ONE SPORTSWRITER LAUGHED PRIVATELY WHEN: Munenori Kawasaki threw his bat into the dirt after Tomoya Yagi struck him out in the sixth inning of Game 2. It was the first game of the playoffs in which Kawasaki wasn't hit with a pitch and the only time the shortstop's frustration boiled over to that point. "Don't hate the player, hate the game," comes to mind here.

TOUGH QUESTION FOR THE PL CHAMPS: Rallying behind magnificent pitching and defense that was rarely less than stupendous, Nippon Ham looked superb after 13 days off.

Yagi and Yu Darvish were so good, the Fighters didn't have to go to their bullpen in two games, which will mean their relievers will go into the Japan Series on 24 days of rest.

That is an eternity, and although Micheal Nakamura, Brad Thomas and the like should be OK, the "when does rest become rust?" debate has to be a concern in the back of someone's mind.

ONE TO REMEMBER: Thomas' 29th birthday, which was Thursday. Most people are happy just to get a day off as a birthday present, and the Australian left-hander got not only that (thanks to Yagi's gem), he also got a PL championship. Tough to wrap that one in a box, but he'll take it nonetheless.

HARDEST TRUTH ABOUT THE LOSER: That Softbank, one of Japanese baseball's most consistent success stories in recent years (even going back to its days as the Daiei Hawks) is getting to be a little too consistent. Namely, Softbank faltered in the PL finals once again, which is becoming a regular fixture of the second-stage playoffs.

The Hawks didn't have the benefit of playing on their home field this year, but given what has happened the last two years in five-game slates played at Yahoo Dome (3-2 series losses on each occasion), that wasn't a bad thing.

Seeing Softbank in the finals is going to become the postseason equivalent of Julio Zuleta seeing a hanging curveball in the ninth -- a good reason to start counting chickens, hatched or otherwise.

FAVORITE EXCLUDED SECOND-STAGE SUBPLOT: Satoru Kanemura and his foolishness. Because of Darvish and Yagi, Nippon Ham didn't bat an eye about losing the whiny Kanemura as a casualty of his own mouth.

He must feel quite foolish for disrespecting his manager and putting his own statistics ahead of his team. The pack didn't seem to miss him.

Hillman doesn't want to talk about it, and fortunately no one else really did, either.

GIVE THIS GUY A RAISE: Fighters pitching coach Mike Brown. Yagi and Darvish could have gotten trapped in so many pitfalls, but the youngsters rocked and rolled with poise far beyond their combined three years of pro experience. Give Brown his share of the credit for making sure his guys were ready to go.



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