The tsunami-hit city of Sendai erupted in joy as its local club won Japan's professional baseball title for the first time ever Sunday, more than two years after the disaster.
The nine-year-old Rakuten Eagles, the youngest of Japan's 12 pro baseball clubs, beat the Tokyo-based Yomiuri Giants, the richest and oldest franchise, 3-0 at home in the final game of the best-of-seven Japan Series.
A standing-room-only crowd at the 24,000-seat Kleenex Stadium in the northern city rose to their feet in rain as Rakuten ace Masahiro Tanaka struck out pinch-hitter Kenji Yano with two outs after he was called up in the ninth inning as the closer.
The Sendai side, the Pacific League champions, wrapped up the series with four wins and three losses against the Giants, the Central League champions, who had sought a second straight Japan Series title, or their 23rd overall.
Rakuten manager Senichi Hoshino was tossed into the air by his players as numerous fans kept on roaring and slamming their balloon sticks in rain.
"Let us praise our players who have given courage to children in Tohoku, children across the nation and people in the disaster-hit area," the 66-year-old manager told the cheering crowd.
A massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake and ensuing monster tsunami devastated Japan's northeast coast on March 11, 2011, leaving more than 18,000 dead and sparking a meltdown crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Sendai's city center suffered limited damage due to the tremor, but its agrarian shoreline was washed away by the tidal wave with about 850 people killed and more than 100,000 houses damaged.
"I always wanted to comfort people by becoming the number one, although what we can do is minimal when compared with the extent of people's suffering in the disaster-hit area," said Hoshino, who took the helm at Rakuten in 2011.
"Ganbare (Stay strong), Tohoku," read banners and signs held by spectators and posted in Rakuten's dugout. A patch with the same phrase was sewn into the arm of the Rakuten jersey.
Tanaka, widely expected to move to the US major leagues next season, was the losing pitcher in a 4-2 defeat to the Giants the night before as he threw a whopping 160 pitches.
The loss ended his winning streak since August last year at 30 from regular and post-season games.
But the 25-year-old ace right-hander was sent to the mound in the ninth inning as a token of Hoshino's thanks for his service throughout the season.
"I was miserable yesterday but I was raring to go at any moment tonight," he said.
"Arigato (Thank you)," Rakuten fans shouted at Tanaka from the stand.
Tanaka shouted back, "Arigato."
"It has been the greatest season," he said.© (c) 2013 AFP