That 2007 Central League pennant championship that had Giants Nation so excited a few short weeks ago must seem pretty hollow now.
Just 18 days after capturing their 31st CL flag since 1950, the Giants were run out of the playoffs in quick order by Hiromitsu Ochiai and his Dragons when Chunichi completed a three-game sweep of Yomiuri on Saturday at Tokyo Dome.
The Dragons' 4-2 victory over their Tokyo rivals in Game 3 of the best-of-five second stage of the Central League Climax Series set up a Japan Series rematch with Pacific League champs the Nippon-Ham Fighters.
The best-of-seven Japan Series starts Saturday in Sapporo. Last year, Trey Hillman's Hammies took the series in five games.
"It feels good, man, it feels good," said Dragons slugger Tyrone Woods, who delivered the big blow in the CLCS clincher, when asked his thoughts on heading back to the Japan Series. "This time we've just got to win by all means, do whatever it takes. We just want to go in and play relaxed, get some timely hits. Our hitting last year really wasn't there so hopefully we can put it all together and pull out some wins."
On Saturday, Woods got a very timely hit, muscling out a three-run opposite-field homer in the fourth inning off Giants ace Hisanori Takahashi to put the Dragons in the driver's seat.
In the top of the seventh, Chunichi catcher Motonobu Tanishige tacked on an insurance run when he homered off Takahashi. Tanishige was on fire in the series, leading both teams with a .583 average.
Dragons right-hander Kenichi Nakata got the ball from Ochiai on Saturday and the 14-game winner didn't let his mercurial manager down. Nakata gave up a second-inning solo homer to Tomohiro Nioka but then settled down, allowing two runs on six hits while striking out 11 in 7 2/3 innings.
Just like he did in Friday's 7-4 Game 2 victory, Ochiai brought in closer Hitoki Iwase with two out in the eighth inning to finish things off. Iwase struck out Shinnosuke Abe to get out of the eighth and then got help from some bad baserunning in the ninth.
After Giants pinch-hitter Noriyoshi Omichi stroked a pinch-hit single, Shigeyuki Furuki came in to run for him. Damon Hollins followed up with a shallow fly to left, but for some bizarre reason Furuki bolted for second and was easily doubled off at first when the ball was caught. Iwase then whiffed pinch-hitter Takuya Kimura to end both the game and the Giants' season.
Earlier, there were a few fireworks when Woods took exception to Lee Seung Yeop's reaction to an inside pitch from Nakata in the fourth inning. After the pitch, Lee glowered at Nakata, causing fired-up first-baseman Woods and the Giants cleanup hitter to take a few steps toward each other, jaws flapping, as both benches emptied. After the players and coaching staffs shoved one another around for a few minutes, cooler heads prevailed and the game continued with Lee eventually striking out.
"I didn't (like that), not at all," Woods said. "It's not like (Nakata) was trying to hit him on purpose. This is the playoffs and we're trying to win. They threw up and in at me a couple of times too and I didn't take offense to it. But I'm just thinking about my pitcher in that situation."
Nakata did hit Lee with a pitch in the eighth inning, but nothing more came of it.
Lefty Takahashi, who was 14-4 for Yomiuri this season with a CL-best 2.75 ERA, took the loss. Takahashi worked seven innings, giving up four runs on six hits. He whiffed seven and walked one batter.
Once again, the Giants were without Yoshinobu Takahashi. The All-Star outfielder, who hit .308 with 35 homers and 88 RBIs from the leadoff spot this season, missed his second straight game with an undisclosed injury, rumored to be a sore back.
The Dragons took Thursday's opener 5-2 with Woods, a three-time CL home-run king, clobbering a two-run tater in that game.
The Dragons finished second in the CL this season behind the Giants with a 78-64-2 record, despite the absence of All-Star outfielder Kosuke Fukudome for much of the season due to injury. Chunichi has claimed the CL pennant twice since 2004 but last won the Japan Series way back in 1954. After sweeping the third-place Hanshin Tigers in two straight in the first stage of the CL playoffs, the Dragons are riding a five-game winning streak into the championship showdown with Nippon-Ham.
"I can't take much credit," a humble Ochiai said as Chunichi fans chanted his name after Saturday's victory. "It is our players who deserve the praise. They fought hard and deserved to win."
(IHT/Asahi: October 22, 2007)