Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The 1974 Dragons, Giant Killers!

I recently watched a short NHK documentary on the final weeks of the 1974 season and how the Dragons held off Yomiuri to win the Central and break the Giants stranglehold on the CL of 9 straight league titles.  The documentary featured interviews with then-pitcher Senichi Hoshino, 2nd baseman Morimichi Takagi and catcher Tatsuhiko Kimata

The account begins with the Dragons having a substantial lead over Yomiuri, but with the pressure mounting Chunichi's bats go cold and Yomiuri closes in.  With seven games to play Chunichi's magic number is 4.  The remaining schedule includes three games against Yakult in Tokyo, followed by a doubleheader against Taiyo and two final road games against the Giants.  Chunichi's players desperately want to clinch the league title prior to the series against Yomiuri.  The Giants at that time were seen as unbeatable and for the most part were unbeatable, they were coming off of not only the nine straight league titles but 9 straight Japan Series Championships as well, and other teams had crumbled facing the same pressure that Chunichi was facing as recently as the previous year. 

The Yakult series started off poorly for Chunichi as they lost the first two games in low-scoring contests.  Fortunately, Yomiuri lost one of their games during that stretch to bring Chunichi's magic number to 3.  Going into the following game confidence in the Dragons' dugout was getting low and sank even further as Yakult jumped out to an early lead.  In the 5th inning with Chunichi still trailing Kimata, hitting seventh in the order, stepped to the plate with runners on base.  As Kimata stood in the batters box the Yakult catcher notified him that his knees were shaking.  Kimata realized at that point just how nervous he was, but stepped back into the box and slapped a game-tying single through the right side.  Later on Yakult added a run and took a 3-2 lead into the top of the 9th.  In the ninth Kimata again came to the plate and again he succeeded, hitting a one-out double to left.  Kimata advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt, bringing Takagi to the plate with two outs.  Takagi swung at the first pitch sending a hard grounder past the third baseman and sending Kimata home with the tying run.

Going to the bottom of the inning there was some dissagrement with the Dragons' coaches over who should pitch the final frame.  Hoshino, the Dragons' ace starter who was due to pitch the next day, as well as their main reliever were in the bullpen.  The manager decided to go with Hoshino, who said that he was feeling the pressure as well, but was surprised at the quality of his warmup pitches in the bullpen.  He took the hill for the ninth, and in his words pitched the best inning of his career, striking out two batters and inducing a weak groundout to preserve the tie.

With the magic number now at two the pressure seemed to fade away and the team's confidence returned.  They felt that they would win both games against Taiyo the next day and wrap up the title, which is exactly what happened.  The Dragons won both games easily with Hoshino pitching eight innings in one of them. 

When the Dragons returned to Nagoya a huge parade was held, reportedly attended by what amounted to half of the population of Nagoya.  Chunichi lost to Lotte in the Japan Series that year in six games, but control in the Central League had shifted and Yomiuri's reign of dominance came to an end.  Yomiuri appeared in only 5 of the next 15 Japan Series with only one Japan Series Championship over that period.  Prior to that they had appeared in 19 of the first 24 Japan Series with 15 championships.

You can see the video here.

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