Sunday, October 30, 2016

Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters: 2016 Japan Series Champions

HIROSHIMA – A pitcher getting it done on the mound and at the plate helped the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters bring home a championship, just like everyone expected.

Not many had reliever Anthony Bass as said pitcher. What third baseman Brandon Laird did, that was pretty much business as usual.

The Fighters broke open a tense contest in the eighth inning, with a bases-loaded walk drawn by Sho Nakata, an RBI single by Bass and a grand slam courtesy of slugger Laird, and returned to the NPB summit with a 10-4 win over the Hiroshima Carp in Game 6 of the Japan Series on Saturday night at Mazda Stadium.

“We were on a mission this year” said Laird, who was named Japan Series MVP. “We had a long season, went through our ups and downs, but we overcame them. Look at us now, we’re Nippon champions, it feels great.”

The Fighters won their first Japan Series title since 2006, rebounding to win four straight games after dropping the first two in Hiroshima.

“We never got down even after losing the first two games of the series,” said manager Hideki Kuriyama. “We were able to win all three games at home and the momentum was with us when we came back to Hiroshima.”

Bass threw two scoreless innings to earn the win in relief. He struck out three and walked a batter. Bass finished the series with a 3-0 record, 0.00 ERA and eight strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings.

“I feel like I did my job, so I was happy with that,” Bass said. “More important is winning the championship. That’s why I signed here in Japan. I wanted to be part of a championship.”

The Fighters are champions for the third time in franchise history, also winning in 1962 and 2006. Their win continues the dominance of the Pacific League in the Japanese Fall Classic. Since 2003, PL teams have won 11 of the past 14 Japan Series titles. Nippon Ham accounted for the only losses in 2007, 2009 and 2012.

The Fighters got it right this time. Wrapping things up in Hiroshima was the cherry on top, as Nippon Ham entered the game just 2-11 on the road in the Japan Series since 2006.

“Definitely feel like we’re on top of the world right now,” Bass said. “Everyone put a lot of hard work in all season long, leading up to this. We faced a good team in the Carp. It wasn’t an easy series by any means. But we found a way to win, and it feels great.”

They won without calling on Shohei Otani again. Otani, who many thought would make another appearance in the series, either at the plate or on the mound, didn’t play Saturday. He was on deck in the eighth, but was called back to the dugout after Nakata drew his bases-loaded walk.

The Fighters would’ve likely started Otani in Game 7 had they lost. The team would’ve faced an emotional scene Sunday against retiring Carp hero Hiroki Kuroda. The veteran pitcher had mostly held Nippon Ham in check before leaving Game 3 with an injury.

“We faced Kuroda after we took the consecutive losses (in Games 1 and 2), but I was thinking that our players would’ve gone in the game on pure spirit,” said Kuriyama. “In a way, we took advantage of Kuroda’s energy. I really respect him. Maybe he wanted to pitch one more game, but if we were to play one more game, I’m not sure we could’ve won, so forgive me for that.

“I really don’t feel like we’ve actually done it. I need to sit back and reflect on it. But more than the Japan Series title, one of our goals was for the fans to have fun with each game.”

Laird’s grand slam was his third home run of the series. The Nippon Ham infielder, who had a tiebreaking two-run homer in the eighth inning that helped win Game 4, drove in seven runs during the Japan Series.

“I was just looking to have a good at-bat, just try to get a pitch I could hit,” Laird said of Saturday’s grand slam. “To get a big hit like that was unbelievable.”

He dedicated his performance to his grandfather.

“I’m just trying to do my best each and every day,” he said. “I’m playing for my grandfather right now, and I know he’s looking down proud. So thank you, grandpa.”

Laird gave his trademark sushi pose after the game and was joined during the award ceremony by Bass, Nakata and Haruki Nishikawa, who earned outstanding player honors. The Carp’s Brad Eldred was given the Fighting Spirit Award as the best player from the losing team.

Nippon Ham did all its damage in the eighth with two outs. Nishikawa, Takuya Nakashima and Hiromi Oka each singled to load the bases against Carp reliever Jay Jackson with the score knotted at 4-4.

Jackson walked Nakata to force in the tiebreaking run. Bass then hit for himself and delivered a single to center that tacked on another run.

“He walked the previous guy, so I was taking a strike and then looking for the fastball,” Bass said. “I haven’t swung in a long time, so I was just trying to start as early as I could. He left a fastball over the plate, and I just hit it.”

Bass pumped his fist wildly in celebration when he reached first base.

“I don’t know what came over me there in the eighth inning,” Bass said. “But it’s been fun. It’s a long season, and that’s why we work.”

Otani, who was 6-for-16 with four doubles during the series, was on deck during Nakata’s at-bat with Bass’ spot due up. But Bass said the plan was for him to hit for himself.

“The plan was, I was hitting 100 percent,” Bass said. “It was kind of like a fake out, I think.”

Laird then connected on a 135-kph slider to put the game away. His home run in Game 4 was also off Jackson, who was charged with the loss on Saturday.

The Carp, who won the Central League pennant for the first time since 1991, were trying to win their first Japan Series title since 1984.

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.

See You Next Week, Azusa Pacific!

GLENDORA >> Azusa Pacific University began Saturday in search of a championship. The Cougars may have earned a bit more at Citrus College.

They also made a pretty big statement for inclusion in next month’s NCAA Division II playoffs.

Andrew Elffers threw for 321 yards and four touchdowns and the Cougars forced four turnovers en route to a 44-7 victory over Central Washington to clinch their third Great Northwest Athletic Conference football title in four seasons.

Weston Carr also had nine receptions for 189 yards and four touchdowns for APU (8-1, 7-0), ranked No. 15 in NCAA Division II and No. 6 in Super Region Three. The Cougars, who equaled a Division II record with three interception returns for touchdowns last week, had three picks on Saturday to raise their season total to 21, which ranks near the top of Division II.

Central Washington, ranked No. 7 in the region, slipped to 5-3 and 4-2.

“It’s just great to get the title,” APU coach Victor Santa Cruz said. “We work hard to get every championship that’s possible. To be able to celebrate our third title in four years says a lot to what the coaches do, the school and the effort our kids give, not just this season, but all the way back to January. Our kids have had vision. They made the sacrifices and I’m just glad they get the fruit (from that commitment).”

APU pretty much clinched the title during the first two quarters, scoring on five of its first eight possessions for a 31-0 lead at halftime.

The game turned following consecutive Central Washington turnovers during the middle of the first quarter. APU, which took a 3-0 lead on its first drive with a 30-yard field goal by Jamie Cacciatore, used both miscues to extend the advantage to 17-0.

C.J. Broussard, who had both interceptions in the first half, returned the first inside the Wildcat’s 20 before Elffers tossed 12 yards to Carr for a 10-0 lead at 4:39.

“We knew it was going to be a battle,” Broussard said. “We knew we had to do what we do. (Tonight) was just the product of hard work and great coaching.”

Elffers, after the Cougars recovered a Central Washington fumble on the kickoff on the Wildcats’ 23, followed with a 10-yard pass to Brandon Jackson to setup Aaron Baltazar’s 1-yard run for a 17-0 lead at 2:39.

Elffers then capped the scoring in the first half with second-quarter touchdown passes of 27 yards to Carr and 12 to Ethan Zeidler for a 31-0 advantage.

He made it 37-0 with a 23-yard pass to Carr in the third quarter. Carr had a 45-yard TD reception from Chad Jeffries in the fourth quarter.

“Passing-wise, we knew we had to come out aggressive,” Carr said. “We knew we had to be perfect on the outside, and really just execute the whole game.”