Now this was a Japan Series with a climax. Back in September, when the Chunichi Dragons were fighting for playoff position, the eventual Central League winners were a dark horse.
The Pacific League's third-place Chiba Lotte Marines weren't involved in much postseason discussion--outside of Chiba, that is. And they were certainly not expected to win 10 games--eight on the road--to capture the franchise's fourth Japan Series championship.
But they stared the Dragons down and gave the country one of its most memorable battles in decades, sending fans loyal and casual into a buzz about the extra-inning affairs, talking strategy and mulling over missed opportunities.
Even peripheral fans and final-score watchers were compelled to flip on the games, which were intense enough to make habitual multitaskers sit down with the hyperactive, stay in their seats and remain attentive throughout.
The Series was truly befitting of the moniker Fall Classic, and thrived late into the night this past weekend. Most symbolic was the Game 6, 15-inning 2-2 draw, a knock-down-drag-out battle that turned out to be the longest in Series history at 5 hours 43 minutes. Fortunately for baseball, it was on national TV, unlike Games 1, 2 and 5, which were only available on cable or satellite.
"The current economic situation had something to do with that," Nippon Pro Baseball commissioner Ryozo Kato said of the three games that were essentially booted from the national TV broadcast lineup.
No fear, they were blowouts. But almost as if planned, the teams played the two most emotion-packed games on a weekend with little else to detract viewership. It was all anyone could ask for from two clubs without a superstar.
Kato called it "an extremely thrilling series."
Gripping was more like it. And it came just in time to revive fans from the virtual snooze-fest over the first three games.
Even the opener, a 5-2 victory for the Marines, seemed like a foregone conclusion the way the Dragons failed to hit.
Chunichi had many swiping at remotes early with an 11-run blowout win in Game 2 to even things, but needed 11 innings and a rally from light-hitting, part-time player Hidenori Kuramoto and a drawn-in-outfield-aided triple from rookie Yohei Oshima for a 4-3 win in Game 4.
That's where the drama really started, interrupted only by a 10-4 walkover Game 5 Lotte win that put it up 3-2 in the Series before heading back to Nagoya.
Many expected the Dragons to hold serve at home, where they went 37-13-1 in the regular season, but it was obvious from the start: these Marines were on a mission.
The Dragons thought they had an advantage on the mound, with the best team ERA in the CL, but the Marines, who led the PL in runs, were loaded and ready to fire.
Good pitching stops...blah, blah, blah. That's when there are shut-down starters who dominate. It's also what people say when hitters, as is likely the case in the postseason, face a lot of high-quality hurlers in high-pressure situations and don't produce.
The Marines had already gone through arguably the best pitching staff in Japan in beating the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, rallying from a 3-1 second-stage Climax Series hole in the process. The Dragons probably still don't know what hit them.
Thinking back to interleague play, during which all six PL teams finished on top of the CL teams in the standings, the first inkling was to assume the PL would be the favorite. But a third-place finisher had never even reached the Series before, so a matchup against a league champion with a great pitching staff with home-field advantage was supposed to be with Chunichi.
And Lotte did it without Shoitsu Omatsu, a power-hitting left-handed batter who couldn't make it back onto the field after injuring himself in Game 1.
There was no favorite, no underdog.
Teetering a pitch from the second Game 8 in Series history, (the Seibu Lions and Hiroshima Carp needed an extra day in 1986), the Marines got clutch pitching and closed out Game 7 with an 8-7 comeback in 12 innings.
A fitting end to a Series to remember, because it will be too hard for anyone who saw it to forget.