SoftBank suffered a shock ending 1-2 loss to the Chiba Rodeo Marines of Nippon Professional Baseball 2023 at ZOZO Marine Stadium in Chiba, Chiba Prefecture, Japan on 24 April.
The team was known as the Fukuoka Dai-E Hawks until the 2004 season, when it was renamed the SoftBank Hawks after SoftBank acquired the franchise at the end of the season. After SoftBank took over the Hawks, the franchise failed to reach the heights of their late Dai-E era, failing to win the Pacific League crown in four seasons, let alone the Nippon Series.
However, in 2010, in the second year of Koji Akiyama’s tenure, the Hawks won their first Pacific League title, and the following year they became a serious contender, winning both the league and Nippon Series titles. SoftBank’s best years came in 2014. SoftBank won the Pacific League and Japan Series in 2014, Akiyama’s final season as manager, and retained the “throne” for two consecutive years after Kimiyasu Kudo took over in 2015.
SoftBank took a “break” from the top spot in the 2016 season, finishing second in the regular season, but won four consecutive Nippon Series titles from 2017 to 2020, establishing themselves as the best team in Nippon Professional Baseball. In particular, SoftBank was strong enough to win the Nippon Series four times, twice coming out on top after finishing the regular season in second place.
However, recent developments suggest that their “dynasty” may be coming to an end. SoftBank finished the 2021 regular season in fourth place, placing them in “Class B” (4th-6th in the league), and last year they finished second, but failed to win the title. This year, they are in third place with 43 wins, 2 draws and 40 losses. The problem is that they’ve fallen to third place after a strong start to the year.
SoftBank is in the midst of a 12-game losing streak, starting with a three-game series against the Rakuten Golden Eagles on the 7th, followed by a series against the Seibu Lions, Oryx Buffaloes, and Chiba Lotte Marines. Still, the fact that they remain in third place, two games behind second-placed Chiba Lotte and eight games behind first-placed Oryx, speaks volumes about the frightening pace they set earlier this season.
It even got to the point where SoftBank manager Hiroshi Fujimoto refused to speak to reporters after the team lost their 11th straight game in extra innings on the 23rd. According to Japan’s Full Count, Fujimoto said, “I’m fine today, I’m not,” and walked off the field, “refusing to talk to reporters,” according to Full Count.
The course of the 12-game losing streak on the 24th was close to the worst. SoftBank scored in the first inning against Chiba Lotte’s “monster” Roki Sasaki, raising hopes of ending the losing streak. Using their “mobility” to their advantage, SoftBank had runners in scoring position in the second and fourth innings, but the decisive blow didn’t come. Still, SoftBank managed to extend their slim one-run lead into the ninth inning with a solid pitching performance. But the ninth inning was the problem.
SoftBank sent closer Roberto Osuna to the mound to close out the game, with a shocking result. Osuna is a former Major League Baseball closer with 155 career saves, including winning the 2019 Save King title with the Houston Astros. Osuna got off to a shaky start when he gave up a leadoff double to Gregory Polanco to start the inning, but retired the next two batters to strand the runner at second base.
With two outs and one on in the bottom of the ninth, Chiba Lotte brought in 17th-year pro Katsuya Kakunaka as a pinch-hitter, and it was a “godsend. Osuna threw a 151-kilometre fastball for a strike in the first inning and then followed it up with a similarly high, body-high fastball, but Kakunaka got a good grip on it and smashed a two-run shot over the right-field fence, sending SoftBank, which had led until the bottom of the ninth inning, to a shocking come-from-behind loss.
SoftBank’s 12-game losing streak is the longest in 54 years, dating back to the Nankai era in 1969. At the time, Nankai had a franchise-record 15-game losing streak. The problem is that breaking the losing streak won’t be easy for SoftBank on the 25th. SoftBank will be facing the Orix and will have Japan’s “ace” Yoshinobu Yamamoto on the mound.
Yamamoto will be heading to the Major Leagues after this season, having won four pitching titles in 2021-2022, the regular season MVP, and the Sawamura Award for the best pitcher in the league. This season, he’s been just as impressive. In 13 starts, Yamamoto is 9-3 with a 1.74 ERA, which leads the Pacific League in wins and ranks second in ERA.
After a shocking come-from-behind loss to Sasaki on the 24th, can SoftBank snap their losing streak against Yamamoto on the 25th?
[SoftBank Hawks head coach Hiroshi Fujimoto, SoftBank players, Roberto Osuna and Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Photo = SoftBank Hawks social media capture, Getty Images Korea]