The Hanshin Tigers' decision to bring back Akinobu Okada as their manager after a 14-year hiatus turned out to be the right one.
On Thursday, the Tigers clinched their first Central League championship since 2005, during Okada's previous stint at the helm. And they did it with 15 games left to play in the regular season.
And they did it by completing a three-game sweep of the archrival Yomiuri Giants in front of die-hard fans at Koshien Stadium.
Okada, the oldest of the 12 Nippon Professional Baseball managers at 65, ended Hanshin's long title drought by working with coaches such as Makoto Imaoka, Tomoyuki Kubota and Yuya Ando, who were key members of his 2005 Tigers.
The Tigers' previous three managers, Yutaka Wada, Tomoaki Kanemoto and Akihiro Yano, were in their 40s when they took the skipper's job.
The team, hugely popular in the Kansai western Japan region, finished second in the league standings at least once under each of the three managers over an 11-year period before it turned to Okada amid concerns raised by fans and baseball experts about his age.
Okada, however, even exceeded the front office's expectations. In the day's post-game interview, he stressed successful player development and great team effort.
When the Tigers swept the second-place Hiroshima Carp last weekend, four first-round draft pick players were in Hanshin's starting lineup, including rookie Shota Morishita and leadoff man Koji Chikamoto.
"We didn't really have a tough time this season," Okada said. "I expected the team to gradually get better in April and May, but we had surprisingly long winning streaks in May."
Hanshin won seven in a row through May 18 and then nine straight through May 30.
"That led to strong performances in August and September," Okada said. "My players are getting better, but they still can improve further. I look forward to the years to come."
On the pitching front, right-hander Shoki Murakami is having a breakout season with a 10-5 record with a league-best 1.76 ERA, and left-hander Kotaro Otake has been a big hit with a 10-2 record since coming from the SoftBank Hawks through last December's inaugural draft for active players.
"Murakami and Otake have racked up 10 wins each. That's huge," Okada said. "The bullpen also did a great job. Everyone on this team has the potential to do well."