The Chiba Lotte Marines' frustrating fall from grace concluded on Saturday as they wrapped up the Pacific League's regular season with a 5-2 victory over the league champion Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.
A lot has changed since the Marines ended the Hawks' 2010 season in the playoffs and went on to win the Japan Series, while the Hawks are moving onward and upward.
"We came out aiming to win it all, to be No. 1 in Japan again, but we didn't make it," manager Norifumi Nishimura told fans after the game. "Instead for the first time in PL history, we went from Japan Series champs to last place.
"We apologize for leaving you with such results."
When asked later what went wrong with this season, Nishimura was not specific.
"We have to reflect on everything and attend to what needs fixing, because it wasn't any one thing," he said. "It will require a lot of consideration and practice."
One area that begs for a solution is power. The Marines, who hit 126 home runs last year, finished last in Japan with 46. It was the lowest total in franchise history and two fewer than PL home run king Takeya Nakamura's 48.
But for one sunny afternoon with a vocal crowd of 20,573, the Marines were in step as Yuki Karakawa (12-6) allowed two runs in eight innings and 38-year-old Yasuhiko Yabuta picked up his 31st save.
Katsuya Kakunaka's second-inning sacrifice fly plated the game's first run, scoring Toshiaki Imae, who had singled and gone to third on Ikuhiro Kiyota's no-out single off lefty Hiroki Yamada.
The Hawks tied it in the third on three straight two-out singles by Seiichi Uchikawa, Nobuhiro Matsuda and Hiroki Kokubo, but the Marines took the lead for good with a four-run fifth after Yamada left the game.
Soichi Fujita, who spent his most productive 10 years in Chiba, appeared in his 600th career game when he replaced Yamada to pitch the fifth. The 39-year-old lefty faced two batters and surrendered a walk and a bunt single to the speedy top of the Lotte lineup and was charged with two runs.
"It was both bad and good," said Fujita (0-1), who took the loss.
"[Getting to 600] sure took a long time."
Fujita, who partnered with the right-handed Yabuta to set up Masahide Kobayashi when Lotte won the PL pennant and Japan Series in 2005, suffered his first loss since the Marines released him four years ago. He received a warm round of applause as he left.
"That was very cool," he said.
Kenji Otonari continued SoftBank's southpaw parade, but fared little better than Fujita. After Shota Ishimine and Yoshifumi Okada perpetrated a double steal, Tadahito Iguchi singled them both home.
Imae doubled to reset the table with one out, and a grounder to third by Kiyota brought another run home on a fielder's choice. Tomoya Satozaki then capped the rally with an RBI single.
The Hawks got a consolation run in the eighth on back-to-back, one-out doubles by Yuya Hasegawa and Hitoshi Tamura.
The Hawks' next game will be on Nov. 3, when they host the best-of-seven Climax Series' second stage at Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome for the right to play in the Japan Series.
This will mark the Hawks' fifth appearance in the second stage since the PL playoffs began in 2004, but they are still seeking their first trip to the Series since 2003.
Uchikawa joins elite group
The Hawks' Seichi Uchikawa became the second player to win a batting title in both leagues, when he went 1-for-4 to finish the season with a .338 average.
"I am extremely happy to be able to win the title in my first season here," said Uchikawa, who also won the 2008 Central League title with the Yokohama BayStars.
The 29-year-old Kyushu native joined the Hawks as a free agent before the season, the first star to move from the PL to the CL in his prime.
"It's a great feeling," he said.
"I don't know what people around me will think or say of my winning with that average, but I did all I could. They'll just have to evaluate my performance as they like."
Uchikawa was also this season's Interleague MVP.
The only other dual league batting champ was Shinichi Eto, who twice won the CL race with the Chunichi Dragons before winning the PL title in 1971, two years after being traded to the Lotte Orions.