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[NPB NOTEBOOK] SoftBank Hawks Dominating the Pacific League with a Supercharged Batting Order

With batters like Kensuke Kondoh, Yuki Yanagita and Hotaka Yamakawa, the PL-leading SoftBank Hawks will be hard to stop this season.

The NPB season is not even two months old and the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks are starting to run away in the Pacific League standings.

The Hawks are coming off a two-game series against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles on May 21 and 22 in which they scored a combined 33 runs and gave up none.

As of Thursday, May 23, the Fukuoka-based team has a record of 29 wins, 10 losses and two ties for a .744 winning percentage and a six-game lead over the second-place Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters.

For the Hawks, it all starts with a powerful, star-studded offense.

SoftBank Hawks
SoftBank Hawks slugger Ryoya Kurihara belts a two-run home run in the second inning on May 21. (KYODO)

Ukyo Shuto, Kensuke Kondoh, Yuki Yanagita, Ryoya Kurihara and Hotaka Yamakawa headline a batting that will strike fear in the opposition pitchers on any team. 

On Tuesday, May 21, Kurihara went 4-for-6 with six RBIs, including two homers, to lead the Hawks to a 21-0 thrashing of the Eagles at Mizuho PayPay Dome in Fukuoka.

As if that wasn't enough, Yamakawa led the way the next night to hit his league-leading 11th and 12th homers while driving in five runs to power SoftBank to a 12-0 win over Rakuten at Kyocera Dome in Osaka for its sixth straight win.

SoftBank Hawks
Hawks starter Tsuyoshi Wada pitches against the Eagles on May 22 in Osaka. (©SANKEI)

SoftBank Hawks Mainstay Wada Improves to 2-0

Ageless veteran Tsuyoshi Wada picked up the win in the 12-0 shutout on Wednesday when he struck out four and gave up just three hits with no walks on 102 pitches over seven scoreless innings.

"That was his best performance this season," said SoftBank manager Hiroki Kokubo. "I was able to stay relaxed while watching him."

The 43-year-old Wada is 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA in two starts this season. Impressive for a guy who began his career with the Hawks way back in 2007.

SoftBank Hawks
Hawks slugger Hotaka Yamakawa leads the Pacific League with 44 RBIs. (©SANKEI)

SoftBank Hawks
Hawks star Yuki Yanagita (©SANKEI)

Top RBI Leaders for the SoftBank Hawks

The top four RBI leaders in the Pacific League are all Hawks batters ― Yamakawa (44), Yanagita (33), Kurihara (25) and Kondoh (23), who is tied with Chusei Mannami of the Fighters.

Kondoh (.336) and Yanagita (.327) are 1-2 in PL batting average rankings. 

On Sunday, May 19, Kondoh capped a two-run ninth-inning rally with an RBI double in a 2-1 walk-off win over the Saitama Seibu Lions. It was SoftBank's fourth straight win.

Trailing 1-0 in the ninth at home, the fleet-footed Shuto singled, stole second and scored the tying run on Yanagita's one-out single.

With one out and a runner on first and second, Kondoh sent the fans home happy with an RBI double. Kondoh's clutch hit came a day after he smacked a two-run homer in the eighth to lift the Hawks to a 3-2 win over Seibu.

"Ukyo got on and Yuki tied it, so I just wanted to get this game over  with," Kondoh said of the May 19 win, according to Kyodo News. "Compared with yesterday, I was quite relaxed."

SoftBank Hawks
The Hawks' Ukyo Shuto steals third base in the first inning against the Saitama Seibu Lions on May 18 in Fukuoka. (©SANKEI)

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An Impressive Mix of Speed and Power Plus a Solid Bullpen

SoftBank's batting order combines speed and power. The team has a Pacific League-leading .268 batting average and 34 stolen bases, second only to the Fighters (36) in the Pacific League. Sixteen of those stolen bases belong to Shuto.

Cuban Livan Moinelo, who was a standout relief pitcher for the Hawks for seven years, is making a transition to the role of a starter and is 2-1 with a stellar 1.53 ERA and 41 strikeouts in seven starts.

Earlier this month, Hawks closer Roberto Osuna picked up his 200th career save between MLB and NPB combined. Osuna now has 47 saves in NPB and 155 in MLB.

The Hawks won six Japan Series championships between 2014 and 2020. Failing to reach the final for the last three years almost feels like a drought for them so they will be eager to return to their winning ways.

Even though they didn't win the Japan Series the last three years, the SoftBank Hawks did reach the playoffs in both 2022 and 2023 so it's not as though they have been out of contention.

With the batting lineup and the pitching they have this season, it's hard to imagine them faltering.

Chiba Lotte Marines right-hander Roki Sasaki fires a pitch to a Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters batter on May 17 at Zozo Marine Stadium. (KYODO)

Sasaki Seeks Consistency

If there is one thing Roki Sasaki would like more of it would be consistency.

On Friday, May 10, Sasaki gave up five runs over 5⅔ innings and was tagged with his loss this year as the Nipponham Fighters beat the Chiba Lotte Marines 6-3.

Sasaki gave up eight hits and the five walks issued were the most in his career. He looked physically tired and mentally dejected after being taken out.

Fast forward one week to May 17 and Sasaki was back to his dominant form.

With scouts from several major league teams in the stands at Zozo Marine Stadium, Sasaki struck out a season-high 12 batters over eight innings while allowing one run on three hits, a walk and a hit batsman.

The game ended in a 1-1, 12-inning Pacific League tie with the Fighters, but you can't blame Sasaki. He gave his team every chance to win.

Sasaki Makes Adjustments

Sasaki is 3-2 with 53 strikeouts and a 2.31 ERA this season. Very good but perhaps not as dominant as past seasons.

So what gives for the man who threw a perfect game in 2022?

One theory making the rounds is that the 22-year-old is attempting to transition from a hard-throwing strikeout machine to a more efficient pitcher.

Sasaki is said to be trying to get more easy outs so that he can stay healthy and remain in the rotation for an entire season, something he has been unable to achieve so far.

The Iwate Prefecture native has been throwing a slider more often this season.

"My primary pitches were a fastball and a splitter," Sasaki said, according to Kyodo News. "So it's better to have a type of pitch that goes [in] a different direction."

Back in 2022, Sasaki's fastball reached as high as 165 kph. This season, Sasaki's fastball has topped 160 kph in only one game, against the Hawks on April 23.

But Sasaki has played down any concerns.

"My velocity is down recently, and I'm not getting tired," Sasaki said, according to Kyodo News, after his first win of the season on April 7 against the Orix Buffaloes. "My fastball has stayed in the 150-kph range. I haven't got everything right yet, so I'll get better."

The Orix Buffaloes celebrate after Yuma Mune's walk-of single in the 10th inning in a 3-2 victory over the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles on May 19 in Osaka. Mune stands on the right. (©SANKEI)

'Sayonara, Sayonara, Sayonara'

That was the closing line for famed film critic Nagaharu Yodogawa back in the 1980s and '90s.

Yodogawa, who passed away in 1998 at the age of 89, would have been pleased by what happened in the Pacific League on May 19. 

All three games ended via a sayonara hit, the first time that's happened since September 20, 2014, and just the third time ever not including doubleheaders or interleague games.

The first one was the aforementioned hit by Kondoh in the SoftBank-Seibu game.

At Kyocera Dome in Osaka, Yuma Mune of Orix hit a sayonara, aka walk-off, single in the 10th inning to lift the Buffaloes to a 3-2 win over the Eagles.

Finally, at Zozo Marine Stadium, Hiromi Oka hit a solo homer in the bottom of the ninth to lift the Marines to a 4-3 walk-off win over the Fighters.

And with that, I bid you sayonara, sayonara, sayonara.

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Author: Jim Armstrong

The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for over 25 years. You can find his articles on SportsLook.

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