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Rob Smaal

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No quit in Japan Series champs

by Rob Smaal (Nov 9, 2010)

Put turmoil-filled 2009 season behind them: Check.

Barely squeak into the playoffs: Check.

Eliminate second-place club in two nail-biters on the road: Check.

Win final three games to overcome pre-determined 1-0 deficit on the road against Pacific League champion Softbank Hawks: Check.

Beat Central League champion Chunichi Dragons to win Japan Series: Check.

To say it was an eventful year for the Chiba Lotte Marines would be somewhat of an understatement. But it certainly was, and it was capped off in fitting fashion late Sunday night with their 12-inning, 8-7 victory in Game 7 of the Japan Series over the Dragons at Nagoya Dome.

That win gave the Marines a 4-2-1 series triumph and came one day after the clubs battled to a 2-2 tie through 15 innings in the longest game in Japan Series history (5 hours and 43 minutes).

The 2010 Chiba Lotte Marines were a team that just didn't know how to quit. Yoshifumi Okada finally rewarded them for their resilience when his 12th-inning RBI triple gave the Marines their first NPB title since 2005 under then-manager Bobby Valentine.

This was supposed to be a rebuilding year of sorts for Lotte, who finished fifth last season as controversy swirled around the team in Valentine's final year in charge. Instead, new skipper Norifumi Nishimura restored a sense of calm and allowed the players to focus on the task at hand--playing solid baseball.

The Marines posted a 75-67-2 record this year, good for a .528 winning percentage. They clinched the third and final PL playoff spot on the last day of the season, went to Seibu Dome and dispatched the second-placed Lions in two 11-inning thrillers, then stormed back in the PLCS in Fukuoka to win the final three games over the Hawks to book a date with Chunichi.

Three of the seven Japan Series games went to extra innings, but when your backs are against the wall this often, you tend to get comfortable with the sensation.

Left-handed starter Yoshihisa Naruse really picked up his game in the playoffs, as did rookie outfielder Ikuhiro Kiyota. Saburo Omura, Tomoya Satozaki, Toshiaki Imae, Shunsuke Watanabe, Hayden Penn, Tadahito Iguchi, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Yoshihiro Ito, Tatsuya Uchi, Kim Tae-kyun ... they all had their moments and this was very much a team effort.

"I've been telling the same thing to the players: 'Fight together as one,'" Nishimura said after the victory. "Other than that, I haven't really said much."

Imae, who was 4-for-5 on Sunday night and 12-for-27 with six RBIs in the series, was named MVP. He was also named Japan Series MVP in 2005, when the Marines swept the Hanshin Tigers in four straight and outscored them 33-4. He echoed Nishimura's sentiments.

"Our attitude was to play as one and do our best," said Imae. "This result came from that outlook.

"Five years ago, I was just excited to be in the Japan Series, but now I've settled down. Now, I truly understand what baseball is."

On Sunday, the Marines fell behind 6-2 after three innings. Sidearmer Watanabe, who had dominated the Dragons in Game 3, was pitching on four days' rest and obviously did not have his best stuff, lasting just two innings before leaving with discomfort in his pitching arm. But the bullpen came through for Nishimura, limiting the Dragons to just one run on five hits over the last nine innings.

The Marines' offense came alive as well. One run in the fourth and three in the fifth--capped by a Satozaki two-run single--tied it before an RBI single by Kim in the seventh gave Lotte a 7-6 lead.

But with this team, doing things the easy way didn't seem to be an option. Sure enough, with closer Hiroyuki Kobayashi on to close it out in the ninth, Dragons cleanup-hitter Kazuhiro Wada led off by cranking a triple off the fence in left-center. A Tony Blanco sacrifice fly to center tied it and the teams were heading to extra innings for the second straight night.

As tensions ran high, the stage was set for somebody to step up and be a hero. In the 12th inning, Okada became that man. With the game all square at 7-7 and relief ace Takuya Asao on the mound for Chunichi, Imae drew a leadoff walk and pitcher Yoshihiro Ito bunted him over to second. Satozaki grounded out before Okada ripped an RBI triple off the warning track in right-center.

Nishimura stuck with Ito, his sixth pitcher of the night, in the bottom 12th and he retired Motonobu Tanishige on a fly out to right, struck out Hirokazu Ibata looking and got pinch-hitter Atsushi Fujii to ground out to shortstop to end it, sending the Marines and their fans into a frenzied celebration.


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