M.League—Do We Have A Game?
Garthe Nelson closes this feature series by recapping the final weekend of the M.League inaugural season and a powerful victory by the Akasaka Drivens!
Where we left it last week, the Drivens had all but sealed their championship of M-League’s inaugural season. Exfurin Kazan was closest but still 250 points away. Still, a 1st versus 4th finish represented a swing of at least 100 points and even 1st vs 3rd or 2nd vs 4th could be 50-80. A good Saturday for them and a couple weak performances by the Drivens and they’d be right back in it. Abemas and Fight Club were mostly fighting for “not last” in the series, but even they could dream about getting back in the running with 3 straight wins. So the stage was set for the trailing teams to come out swinging.
Taro absolutely dominated the field in the first two weeks, winning 4 of the 6 games he played and taking 2nd in the others. He took the 3rd week off to let Murakami and Sonoda claim a little glory for themselves. But lest any of the teams get it in their heads that they might turn things around in the final weekend, the Drivens sent out their designated slugger to quash those dreams without even the hint of becoming reality. Taro did wait until his turn as dealer at the end of the East Round to finally turn it on. Of course he won some very standard haneman and mangan (Reach, tsumo, pinfu, and always a bunch of dora) hands to jump out to almost 60,000 points. But what really showed how completely he and the Drivens controlled the narrative at all times was even when he didn’t have a hand, Taro was still pushing. Katsumata ponned the White Dragon and had 2 red dora trying to push himself back in the running for the South Round and finally end Taro’s dealer. He ended up drawing and discarding the normal dora before he could draw his winner which was all the encouragement Taro needed to ignore the threat. Taro got to tempai with Chiitoi and no dora, but furiten. When his wait improved, he reached. It really drove the point home to the other players: this series belonged to the Drivens.
Next it was Murakami’s turn. He didn’t knock it out of the park like he did last week, but he was neck and neck with Katsumata on the last hand of the game and got to ready first with a pointless hand, except the point was of course to beat Katsumata, so he reached. Katsumata knew a late 8 of cracks was dangerous, but he was only ahead of Murakami by 100 points. Towards the end of the hand, he needed to at least finish with a ready hand or simply lose the game on the no-ten penalty. He pushed, lost, and even from way down in last place for that game, Shiratori’s face illustrated every non-Drivens player’s sentiments.
To end the day Takki built out a nice lead and had even pushed Sonoda down to last place going into the last hand with Ooi as dealer. Sonoda kept it exciting putting together a ready Su-an-ko even after both Ooi and Hisato had reached. In the continuing campaign to totally demoralize opponents, Ooi got to see all of the 7 of cracks he was waiting for contained in one of Sonoda’s triples. If Takki could hold on, it would be a nice way to finish the day and still hold out a glimmer of hope for some kind of crazy turn around on Sunday. But the Drivens wouldn’t even afford him that moral victory. Sonoda won the last hand to barely edge out Hisato in third place and keep more of their lead going into Sunday.
With the Drivens extending their lead on Saturday, Sunday had become a battle for 3rd place. Fight Club took the first swing. Takamiya woke up in the first hand with a half flush/ittsu monster and tsumoed to start off the game with a baiman. She extended her lead while dealer and maintained it to the end to put some distance between them and the Abemas. It was a nice end to what seemed to be a tough regular season for her. In the final interviews, she seemed unsure of her future in the league though that last win moved her performance into at least the top half of the players in the final series. By far the most popular player in Mahjong Fight Club for several years now, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Takamiya.
Speaking of players who had a tough time of it in the regular season, Shiratori! He actually finished dead last in the individual standings for the regular season but now it was the Abemas’ turn to punch back and Shiratori let loose a flurry of haymakers. Maehara had found himself with a nice lead during his turn as dealer after drawing mangan. But in one of those, “SEEEEE? Nagare!” moments, he ponned the first Red Dragon when it came out and all his nice tiles went to Shiratori, who eventually drew mangan that hand to start a crazy run as dealer for him. 9 continuances! By the end of his turn as dealer, he had more than 90,000 points. His turn as dealer went so long that when it was finally over, they took a bathroom break in the middle of the game! And not to take anything from his win here, which was spectacular, but that break highlighted a bit of what I actually found most entertaining on Sunday.
Tsuchida is an all star from way back who used to be the best of Renmei before he broke out on his own to start a new league. Above is from that sudden dead time when he was explaining how when one of them needs a restroom break they just disappear and suddenly the commentating feels a little quieter for a little while. I want him commentating my entire life. He’s just always saying something goofy, outlandish or unexpected. You know when someone gives you a compliment and then you think about it and suddenly it feels less complimentary and more like a banana cream pie in the face? He was complimenting (ribbing?) fellow commentator Uchikawa (affectionately known as Ucchi) for being a very lucky player. “I mean you can just see it from the way you play!” Ucchi of course took it all in stride but later he was commenting about how Matsumoto of the Abemas was doing everything right but just couldn’t get a break in the game where Takamiya dominated. He was getting really unlucky. To which Tsuchida replied, “I know, he’s the exact opposite of YOU!” They were a great finish for a whole season of fantastic commentating.
The final game turned out to be more of Taro being Taro. Actually, he didn’t run away with the game until his turn as dealer at the end of the game. It started with Ooi in the lead and Ucchi and Tsuchida kept trying to imagine crazier bigger and bigger hands Hisato would need to overtake Ooi as Taro kept winning hands. It’s like he has no off switch! Who knows when it would have ended if he hadn’t finally folded the last hand. Taro giving up did allow Ooi to draw a winner on Haitei thus allowing him back into first for the game and securing third place in the series for the Abemas. It was a somewhat anti-climactic but fitting way to end a Final Series controlled from beginning to end by the Drivens.
Congratulations to the individual players who received medals for accomplishments throughout the regular season. It was interesting to note that none of the Drivens were even in the top 3 for any of those awards, again highlighting their strength as a team, and as clutch players at crunch time. Takki got the award for being the least losingest player in the league, i.e., taking the fewest 4th places. Kayamori scored more points per winning hand than anyone else in the league. And of course who can forget Ooi’s racking up more than 400 points to be the most winning player overall.
One award they should consider next year—most devoted fans! The Abemas fans were fanatical, and it was great fun and sometimes even moving to see how affected they could be by all the ups and downs. Way to go Shiratori, actually bringing the girl to tears of joy as he plowed his way back to 3rd place for them. There was lots of talk at the end about the future of the league and Mahjong. Maybe in the end though, the fans said it best.
But the biggest congratulations go the Akasaka Drivens. Not only have they won the M-League’s inaugural season, but they did it in commanding fashion. Can’t wait to see what the next season brings! Maybe a California surfer parading around the table in his board shorts at the beginning of each round with an East or South card and banging a bell to get it going? Not the right image?