It took SoftBank Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo six Japan Series games, but he finally thought outside the box on Saturday, tasking closer Dennis Sarfate to get the three scoreless innings needed to put away the tenacious DeNA BayStars.
Coming in to the series after whipping the two teams in the playoffs that had finished ahead of them in the Central League standings, the BayStars were clearly underdogs. And the BayStars played like it in a one-sided Game 1 defeat.
By Wednesday, the Hawks had added a pair of one-run wins to push DeNA to the brink of elimination, but the BayStars proved harder to kill than a pack of horror-movie zombies. Playing in enemy territory, DeNA had come from behind at Yafuoku Dome and entered the ninth leading by a run and poised to even the series at three games apiece.
At that juncture, and knowing his closer might be needed for a potential Game 7, Kudo called on Sarfate, who saved a record 54 games during the season. The right-hander responded. After saving Games 2 and 3, he earned the win in Game 6 and was named the series' MVP.
"I think I'll remember this one forever," Sarfate told a press conference after the game. "A tough team, the BayStars, coming in as the third seed and they gave us a run for our money. But I knew that coming back home, we had a chance. With our fans and their support, I knew it was going to be tough to beat us here."
After the easiest of 1-2-3 innings, Hawks captain Seiichi Uchikawa homered off BayStars closer Yasuaki Yamasaki to tie it in the bottom of the ninth.
"I knew the team needed me to pick us up," Sarfate said. "I knew that if I could get a quick inning, I knew who was coming up, Despa (Alfredo Despaigne) and Uchi, and I knew we had a chance, so I just wanted to get one (inning). When we tied it, I knew I had to get another one (scoreless inning)."
But he almost spoiled that. After a leadoff single, his wild pickoff throw put the go-ahead run in scoring position with no outs and the heart of the BayStars order coming up: CL RBI champ Jose Lopez, national team cleanup hitter Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and CL batting champ Toshiro Miyazaki.
"The adrenaline kicks in," Sarfate told Kyodo News. "You've got to face Lopez and Tsutsugo and Miyazaki, and I make that error. I can't blow this on that stupid play."
But back-to-back strikeouts and a ground out ended the threat, and Sarfate whipped the dome's crowd into a frenzy as he left the mound.
"I expended some energy getting the crowd up after that second inning," he said. "I knew I had one more inning. I thought it would have been tough if I had to go four and we don't win the game and I've got to pitch tomorrow."
"And once I came back after that second one, I said, 'I'm not coming out of this game.' I knew if we kept putting up zeroes, we were going to score a run. And my teammates always back me up."
But rest wasn't an option after DeNA lefty Edwin Escobar retired the Hawks quietly in the 10th inning and Sarfate went back out for the 11th. The Hawks offense backed him up, drawing two walks before utility man Keizo Kawashima singled home the Japan Series-clinching run.
"I'm tired. I hope Kudo-san doesn't get used to that. In a game like that, you've got to strap it on and say, 'Come on let's go. If I've got to go four, I've got to go four.' But three was my max, because in case something happened I had to be ready to go tomorrow, but I'll remember that the rest of my life."
"That series was amazing. The BayStars played like they'd won the Central League. They played hard. They have a good lineup. Their pitching was phenomenal, the starters -- especially the lefties -- were amazing. It's a series that you never want to see end. You want it to keep going."
And it did, until Sarfate and his teammates ended it.