The Yomiuri Giants had the best Central League team on paper coming into the season. On Saturday, they proved they were the CL's best on the field.
Alex Ramirez blasted a two-run, eighth-inning home run to break a tie and help send the Giants to the Japan Series for the 31st time with a 6-2 win over the Chunichi Dragons in Game 4 of the best-of-seven second stage of the CL Climax Series.
The Giants, who won the CLCS 3-1-1 after entering with a one-win advantage, will make their first Series appearance since 2002 and meet the Pacific League champion Saitama Seibu Lions for Game 1 here on Saturday.
In the offseason, the payroll-pricey Giants shored up its pitching and snatched up hard-hitting free agent Ramirez. The additions made the difference in the playoffs.
Ramirez, named the series MVP after batting .438, ripped a no-doubter off Chunichi reliever Akifumi Takahashi, driving the first pitch into a boisterous section of Giants fans in left-center field who were part of a record Tokyo Dome crowd of 46,797.
It was all smiles in the end, but Ramirez and the Giants had to outlast year's Series winners, who battled to the end.
Chunichi scraped together a run to tie the game at 2-2 in the eighth inning on Tyrone Woods' sacrifice fly before the Giants broke loose for four runs.
"In that situation, I knew it was going to be my last chance and I couldn't afford to miss," said Ramirez, also a strong candidate to win the CL MVP award. "He gave me a good pitch to hit and I didn't miss it."
Hara, whose team avenged last year's crushing second-stage sweep by the Dragons, has guided the team to the Series for the second time as skipper. He won it all in 2002, but left the bench after the 2003 season. He was asked to come back to start the 2006 season and got the team the CLCS but was wiped out at home.
"Last year we were able to win the pennant, but for us the Climax Series was something new for us," said Yomiuri manager Tatsunori Hara.
"We got swept in three games and the players who were here remember that. The newcomers didn't have the frustration of last year but matched the others with their intensity on the field.
"For us, Chunichi was a team we had to get past. Last year we had tears of pain, but this time they were tears of joy," said Hara, whose players unexpectedly decided to give him a hero's toss.
Hara's team is now battled-tested going into the Series.
"During the regular season, the Hanshin Tigers were tough, and we faced the Dragons and they were tenacious and provided us with a tremendous challenge," Hara said.
Southpaw starter Hisanori Takahashi, who had a career year in 2007 but had been mediocre from Opening Day, tossed a strong seven innings for the Giants.
He allowed a run on five hits and a walk, while fanning three. He deserved the win, but the bullpen blew it.
"It wasn't about having this pitch or that pitch working for me tonight," Takahashi said. "It was about bearing down and getting outs.
"The guys also did a good job of getting me some runs to work with. We all really want to win the game and I think it showed."
Marc Kroon came on to get the final three outs in a non-save situation. He fanned Norihiro Nakamura for the first out and, after a flyout and a walk, ended the game with another strikeout to earn the win.
The Dragons finished third in the CL just three games over .500 and, after knocking off the second-place Hanshin Tigers in the first stage, gave Yomiuri, which was 27 games over .500, a dogfight.
Yomiuri got on the scoreboard first with a pair of runs in the fourth inning. Takuya Kimura opened with a sharp single to left, and Chunichi starter Chen Wei-yin then hit birthday boy Michihiro "Guts" Ogasawara, who turned 35, to put runners on first and second with no outs.
Ramirez to popped out to right and Lee Seung Yeop flailed at an offspeed pitch to strikeout before Yoshitomo Tani doubled down the line in left to plate the game's first run.
"Hisanori had worked hard to get out of a number of situations with runners on base, and Guts didn't leave the game after he got hit by the pitch and really ran hard, so that just psyched me up," Tani said.
Ogasawara, who was hit on the left hand, went for X-rays, which were negative.
Hayato Sakamoto, Yomiuri's 19-year-old No. 8 hitter, followed Tani with a single to left to score Ogasawara but Tani was cut down at the plate on a perfect throw from Kazuhiro Wada in left.
Woods hit his fifth longball of the playoffs, a mammoth solo shot--that traveled an estimated 150 meters from home plate--off the back wall of the dome, in the sixth inning, but his two RBIs were all the Dragons could muster.