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Japan Series: PERFECTION!

by Rob Smaal / Staff Writer (Nov 2, 2007)

Another drought ended, and in historic fashion, no less.

Daisuke Yamai and closer Hitoki Iwase combined on the first perfect game in Japan Series history Thursday night as Chunichi edged the Nippon-Ham Fighters 1-0 in Game 5 of the Japan Series, ending 53 years of championship futility for the Dragons.

Ryosuke Hirata's second-inning sacrifice fly off young Fighters phenom Yu Darvish gave the Dragons a 4-1 series win that sent a packed Nagoya Dome into rapture, but this night was all about Yamai.

After he had torn through the Fighters' lineup over the first eight innings on just 86 pitches, Dragons manager Hiromitsu "I-Did-It-My-Way" Ochiai replaced Yamai with closer Hitoki Iwase to start the ninth. Iwase got the side in order--27 up, 27 down without a runner reaching base.

"It's been a long four years," said Ochiai, who was tossed in the air by his players. "Yamai was perfect today. I didn't know he had it in him but I do know that all our players are mentally tough and that has helped us win all season long."

Right-hander Yamai struck out six and issued no walks as he put his name in the history books by pitching the biggest game of his life in the biggest game of his life. The six-year veteran was 6-4 this season with a 3.36 ERA.

Veteran infielder Norihiro Nakamura was named series MVP after hitting .444. The former Pacific League home-run and RBI king started the season on the farm making just 4 million yen after a disappointing stint in the Los Angeles Dodgers system. But the big guy played himself onto the varsity club and was a key contributor for the team all season.

"This is the best feeling," the 34-year-old Nakamura said as tears ran down his cheeks after the game. "I can't express how grateful I am that the Dragons gave me a chance this season."

Last year, the same two clubs hooked up in Japan's version of the Fall Classic, with the Fighters winning their first franchise title since 1962, when they were known as the Toei Flyers.

While the Dragons had been to the Japan Series representing the Central League seven times since 1950, their lone title came way back in 1954.

With their backs against the proverbial wall, Fighters manager Trey Hillman rolled out ace right-hander Darvish, who earlier in the series struck out 13 on his way to a complete-game victory in Game 1.

On Thursday, the 21-year-old Sawamura Award winner put in another fine performance, allowing five hits and one run over seven innings while striking out 11, only to come out second best in a pitchers' duel with Yamai.

Nakamura, Chunichi's version of Steve Austin--his salary was boosted to 6 million yen when he made the team--continued to get some big hits in the postseason.

After Tyrone Woods singled to lead off the bottom of the second inning, Nakamura clubbed a double that one-hopped the wall in right-center to put runners at second and third. Darvish struck out Lee Byung Kyu, but the 19-year-old Hirata lofted a sacrifice fly to right field, allowing Woods to trot home for the only run of the game.

After the teams split the first two games in Sapporo, with Nippon-Ham winning the opener 3-1 then losing 8-1, the series shifted to Nagoya where the home team took three straight: 9-1, 4-2 and 1-0.

After their hangovers wear off, Ochiai and the Dragons will start preparing for the Konami Cup Asia Series, which takes place at Tokyo Dome from Nov. 8-11 and features the league champions from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China's national team.

The Dragons finished second in the Central League this year before going on to dispatch the third-place Hanshin Tigers and pennant-winning Yomiuri Giants in five straight games in the Climax Series. This season marked the first time that playoffs were held in the CL.

Hillman has managed his last game in Japan after taking the helm of the Fighters in 2003. Starting next season, the 44-year-old Texan will be managing the Kansas City Royals of the American League, his first gig as manager of a major-league ballclub.

(IHT/Asahi: November 2, 2007)


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