One had to wonder what was going through Hisanobu Watanabe's mind when he nominated Fumiya Nishiguchi to start Japan Series Game 7 last Sunday.
Was the Saitama Seibu Lions manager simply keeping faith with an old teammate who'd had more than his share of bad luck in the autumn?
"I figured it might surprise a few people," Watanabe told The Hot Corner on Tuesday.
Nishiguchi had a rare string of five solid starts from July to September, and had a two-game win streak at Tokyo Dome. But other than that, there was little to recommend the right-hander for the job.
The 36-year-old, whose career had taken off in the mid-1990s just as Watanabe's was in its final stages, got the start and put the Lions in an early hole.
"I was counting on his experience being a factor," Watanabe said, referring to Nishiguchi's knowledge and poise rather than his experience of never winning a Series game in six starts.
"Although he was 0-5 in Japan Series, he hadn't pitched badly."
No, but like his 11-year curse of not being able to win at Tokyo Dome, Nishiguchi seemed destined for nothing in the autumn but anguish.
He started Sunday by loading the bases and unleashing a run-scoring wild pitch. Things could easily have gotten out of control then and there. But for the first time ever with Nishiguchi on the mound, luck was on the Lions' side in the Series.
With runners on second and third, his drawn-in infield halted a hard-hit ball for the second out. If the ball gets through, the Series is likely over. Lucky to be down just a run, Nishiguchi surrendered a leadoff homer in the second.
It looked for all the world like the final futile chapter in a career of Series misteps. Nishiguchi had come close before--shutting out the Yakult Swallows for eight innings in 1997 before losing 1-0 to Kazuhisa Ishii, now his Lions teammate.
In 2002, Nishiguchi had been Seibu's best pitcher all season, but first-year Lions manager Haruki Ihara balked at having him start Game 1 at Tokyo Dome, where he hadn't won since August 1996.
Ihara instead started Daisuke Matsuzaka, who had been hurt and was far from fit. Matsuzaka lost and the Giants won three straight games before Nishiguchi got a chance at Series salvation in Game 4.
The veteran battled to a 2-2 tie over five innings in Seibu's most competitive starting effort of the Series, when Ihara brought in Matsuzaka. The youngster allowed the Giants to blow the game open, sweep the Series and send Seibu to its fifth straight Series failure.
Nishiguchi lost again in 2004, allowing two runs in five innings in a 6-1 Game 5 defeat to Chunichi Dragons ace Kenshin Kawakami. The Lions won that Series by sweeping the last two games on the road--a feat they repeated last weekend.
After compiling an 8-6 season with a 5.03 ERA, Nishiguchi should have been nobody's candidate to start, but he did manage two innings without completely sacrificing Seibu's chances for success.
"I expected him to give us three good innings. Two made things a little tight," said Watanabe.
After Hayato Sakamoto's homer made it 2-0 in the second, Nishiguchi got three quick outs and was relieved by Ishii, who got the next six. Ace Hideaki Wakui entered trailing by one and got all six he faced. Tomoki Hoshino set down the next three batters, the Lions took the lead in the eighth and Alex Graman retired six straight to save it.
"A short championship series is a different challenge from the regular season. It calls for special measures," said Watanabe, who got a brilliant long relief effort from Game 4 starter Takayuki Kishi in Game 6.
Giants manager Hara was the first to opt for radical change--by yanking Koji Uehara after the ace allowed a run in three Game 5 innings. Hara's bullpen won the game, but when his relievers entered Game 6 in the third inning, that game was lost.
In the final two games, Watanabe's starting pitchers were more effective in relief than the Giants bullpen and that decided the Series.
"I explained the situation to the relievers, that only the very best would play," Watanabe said. "They understood what was best for the team and were prepared to simply cheer on their teammates."