Yomiuri Giants manager Tatsunori Hara is racking up the frequent flier miles this year. Exactly six months to the day after piloting Japan to its second consecutive World Baseball Classic title, Hara was once again airborne doage-style, getting tossed aloft by his Giants players at Tokyo Dome on Wednesday after their 5-3 victory over the second-place Chunichi Dragons clinched the Central League pennant for Yomiuri.
Alex Ramirez and Yoshitomo Tani each homered and right-hander Wirfin Obispo worked seven solid innings to improve to 5-1 as the Giants clinched their third straight CL title and the club's 33rd overall.
"This is very special for me because I started with the WBC victory and now I can end the season with a league championship with the Giants," said Hara, who has now skippered Yomiuri to four CL titles, including one back in 2002.
"Last year's team was really good, but this year we were even better," Hara continued. "It was just such an exciting pennant race for us. In this year's pennant race everyone had such a warm feeling about it and that never cooled off all season."
The Giants earned a first-round bye in the CL Climax Series with their victory, which also completed a three-game sweep of Chunichi. The Dragons will face the third-place club when Stage 1 of the league playoffs begin Oct. 17, with the winner of that best-of-three meeting the Giants in Stage 2. The Hanshin Tigers, Hiroshima Carp and Yakult Swallows are battling it out for the third CL playoff berth with all three teams starting the day within a half-game of one another.
"We're just going to take it day-by-day from now on," said Ramirez, who drove in two runs on Wednesday. "The first stage has been cleared and now we've got to win the Climax Series, but our No. 1 goal is to win the Japan Series."
Tani turned on a 3-and-2 delivery from Chunichi starter Daisuke Yamai in the second inning, drilling a solo shot into the Dragons cheering section in the left-field bleachers to open the scoring. Tani's home run was his 11th of the season and his third of the series after he walloped a pair in the Giants' 5-3 win over Chunichi in Monday's series opener. Tani was 3-for-3 on the day. He was hit by a pitch from Yamai in his other plate appearance.
Ramirez added to the lead when he homered to open the fourth. While Ramirez's homer may not rank up there with Babe Ruth's immortal "called shot" in the 1932 World Series, the Venezuelan slugger proved that he is a man of his word. Prior to Wednesday's game, Ramirez vowed to a TV crew that he would hit a home run, and he delivered with a solo shot to left-center to lead off the bottom of the fourth. Ramirez's home run, his 30th of the season, came off a 139-kph fastball from Yamai and it sent the Giants on their way to a three-run inning. Shigeyuki Furuki would lace an RBI single to left to plate a run and Obispo, who had been swinging the bat hard all afternoon, would help his own cause by bunting in another run to make it 4-0.
Dragons catcher Motonobu Tanishige made a game of it when he slammed a three-run homer off Obispo in the seventh, but Ramirez came up big again in the bottom of the frame, slicing an opposite-field RBI single to right off reliever Takuya Asao to give the Giants a two-run cushion.
Daisuke Ochi worked the eighth for Hara's club, giving up a one-out single to Masahiro Araki before inducing Hirokazu Ibata to hit into an inning-ending double play.
That set the stage for closer Marc Kroon in the ninth. With a packed house cheering him on, Kroon got Masahiko Morino to pop out to left and he struck out cleanup-hitter Tony Blanco. Next up was the dangerous Kazuhiro Wada, and after initially getting ahead in the count, Kroon wound up bouncing ball four in the dirt to bring the potential tying run to the plate in the form of veteran pinch-hitter Kazuyoshi Tatsunami. Tatsunami was able to make decent contact, too, but his line drive was snared by third baseman Furuki to end it.
Kroon pumped his fists skyward to celebrate his 27th save--and another league title--as his teammates mobbed the colorful closer.
"I lost a couple of years off my life today," Kroon said. "I wasn't really feeling too nervous until Wada stepped up to the plate and I bounced a few. I wanted to get him to chase a pitch in the dirt--I was holding that forkball so tight, I was so motivated.
"Getting the final out like that in a championship-clinching game is a feeling I've always dreamed about. I wanted to end it with a strikeout, but throwing the final pitch in a big win like that--just unbelievable."
Obispo got the win, allowing three runs on five hits over seven innings. Yamai fell to 0-3 on the season. He allowed four runs on eight hits through four innings.
After celebrating their win with their fans at Tokyo Dome, the Giants players and staff headed over to the Tokyo Dome Hotel, where they soaked each other with the traditional beer shower. The hotel swimming pool had been set up to accommodate the festivities.
The teams have today off before the Giants host the Carp for a three-game set beginning Friday.
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Elsewhere in the CL, the Hanshin Tigers defeated the BayStars 6-3 at Yokohama Stadium. At Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium, the Yakult Swallows beat the Hiroshima Carp 4-1.
In the Pacific League, the Seibu Lions crushed the Nippon-Ham Fighters 6-1 at Sapporo Dome, while at Kleenex Stadium the Rakuten Eagles bested the Orix Buffaloes 4-1. At Yahoo Dome, the Lotte Marines defeated the Softbank Hawks 7-5.