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THE HOT CORNER: The art of falling apart

by Jim Allen (Oct 14, 2010)

All season, the Saitama Seibu Lions were the champions of adversity. Losing one player after another to injury only seemed to spur Hisanobu Watanabe's men to dig deeper and find new ways to win.

They not only persevered, but they repeatedly built commanding positions: in the race for the interleague title, in the Pacific League pennant race and in the first stage of the PL Climax Series.

As underdogs, the Lions were unbeatable, but once in command, Seibu turned late collapses into an art form.

On June 9, Seibu had a one-game interleague lead over Orix with three games to play only to lose by two games. As the second half began, Watanabe said the key would be hanging in there until the club's injured stars returned and then not repeating their interleague choking act.

The stars came back. Takeya Nakamura reminded pitchers why he's the league's best home run hitter, and lefty Kazuhisa Ishii was as good as he can be in this stage of his career.

The Lions rolled on and led the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks by 3-1/2 games with seven left to play.

On Sept. 18, the first game of a three-game series in Fukuoka, ace righty Hideaki Wakui blew a 4-0 lead and Seibu lost 9-7 in 11 innings. The next day, the Lions led 4-3 after 2-1/2 innings but lost 11-5. Seibu held a 4-1 lead in the series finale after four innings but lost 5-4.

They still held a half-game lead over the Hawks, but were eliminated from pennant contention by a 4-3 sayonara loss in Sapporo.

Last Saturday against the Chiba Lotte Marines, Seibu blew a four-run, ninth-inning lead at home. Sunday's encore saw Seibu leading 4-1 after five innings and clinging to a 4-3 lead after eight.

PL saves leader Brian Sikorski had blown a four-run lead the day before, and did not take the mound on Sunday.

Closers earn their money, not just because they can get batters out, but because they are good at putting bad games behind them. This season, Sikorski had been very sharp in 14 games when he had pitched the day before. He was even better in games following a bad outing.

However, Watanabe chose right-handed setup man Shuichiro Osada to save the day. Tomoya Satozaki homered to tie it and the Marines eventually eliminated the Lions in the 11th inning.

The Lions got as far as they did because of a healthy measure of good luck. One could easily claim Seibu was Japan's luckiest team. Given the 680 runs they scored and the 642 allowed, the Lions won two more games than expected.

This is not a lot, but they were lucky in other ways. Given the number of runners they had on base, their number of extra bases, walks, sacrifices and so on, the Lions should have scored 669. The same is true of their defense in that they allowed eight runs fewer than expected.

The Lions' luck really ran out in the seventh inning in Sapporo on Sept. 26, with Jose Fernandez at the plate with a chance to break a 3-3 tie.

Believing the PL pennant was still handed to the playoff champion, as it had been in 2004 when he last played in the postseason, Fernandez was thinking big instead of thinking pennant.

Nobody had told him a loss could be costly. Everyone just assumed he knew.

With one out and the bases loaded, he was aiming to drive the ball for extra bases. On an outside slider he might have flicked into right field for an RBI single, Fernandez flew out weakly to second.

"I wanted to win, but I figured I could drive in a couple of runs," he told The Hot Corner. "In that situation, you want to be greedy. I didn't know it would mean the championship. I had no idea."

He was baffled when the next day's papers showed the Hawks celebrating.

"I thought they were celebrating winning the regular season title," Fernandez said. "I couldn't figure out why everybody [with Seibu] was looking like they were about to commit suicide and there're all these stories about the manager quitting. It didn't make sense.

"If [I know] the championship is on the line, then my approach is totally different, because one run is big. You do whatever you can to drive in that one run.

"Who knows, I might even have bunted."


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