From rags to riches, to more riches, the Orix Buffaloes clinched their third straight Pacific League pennant Wednesday under manager Satoshi Nakajima.
Nakajima, promoted from minor league manager to first-team interim skipper partway through the 2020 season, spent time coaching in the United States after hanging up his catching gear.
Between his player-first approach that is becoming increasingly popular in Japan, a wave of young talent developed by an organization with a renewed focus and the good fortune of inheriting a generational talent in ace pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Nakajima has been the face of the franchise's turn-around.
For a decade, with the lone exception of a magical 2014 season when Orix came within a whisker of the PL pennant, the Buffaloes were the PL's joke team.
During that time, Orix developed a reputation as an organization marred by factional front-office infighting, where talented players were acquired in the draft who would then fail to progress after becoming first-team regulars.
By the end of the last decade, the front office had been cleaned out, and the foundation of the current Buffaloes powerhouse was beginning to take shape.
Nakajima was running the farm team and being groomed for the top managing job. Yamamoto was being converted back into a starter after a spectacular 2018 season in the bullpen, while Masataka Yoshida, who moved this season to the Boston Red Sox, was becoming one of the PL's top hitters.
After enduring last-place finishes in 2019 and 2020, the new-look Buffaloes began to churn out pennants.
In addition to winning the PL's 2021 and 2022 MVP awards, Yamamoto has also taken home the last two Sawamura Awards as Japan's most impressive starting pitcher. As of Wednesday, he leads the PL in wins, ERA and strikeouts and is a good bet to win both again this year.
The changes within the organization have meant that Yamamoto is merely the brightest star in a deep starting-pitching rotation.
"Our pitching staff has truly been amazing," Nakajima said after Wednesday's pennant-clinching victory. "But our position players, with their solid fielding and their clutch hitting, have all contributed to wins."
By signing free agent catcher Tomoya Mori, Orix's best position player this season, and a career year from converted catcher Yuma Tongu, the Buffaloes were able to let Yoshida move to MLB and stay afloat offensively.
The Buffaloes became the first PL team to win three straight pennants since the Seibu Lions won five in a row from 1990 to 1994 when Nakajima was plying his trade as a catcher for the Orix BlueWave.
"That Seibu team was really strong. That's a high bar for anyone to aim for, but it gives us something to aspire to," Nakajima said.