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Hawks draw first blood in Japan Series

Nieves nails clutch HR in opener

by Jack Gallagher

The much-hyped “O-N” Japan Series got off to a rousing start at the Tokyo Dome on Saturday night, as the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the seventh inning to defeat the Yomiuri Giants 5-3 in Game 1 on home runs by Nobuhiko Matsunaka, Kenji Jojima and Melvin Nieves.

The Hawks, managed by former Giants legend Sadaharu Oh and the defending Japan Series champions, started slowly against Yomiuri, led by Oh’s former Giants teammate and icon Shigeo Nagashima, but converted when it counted. Matsunaka’s two-run shot in the seventh tied the contest 3-3, before Nieves provided the decisive run on a pinch-hit solo rocket in the ninth.

“I was lucky that I got ahead in the count, so I was just looking for my pitch after that,” said Nieves of his titanic circuit clout, which hit off wall above the third deck in right field. When asked if he was disappointed he wasn’t in the starting lineup, Nieves said: “That’s the manager’s job. I just come out and do my best. If he wants me to pinch hit like tonight, I’ll be happy to do that, and if he wants to put me in the starting lineup, I’ll do that, too.”

Interesting comments, in light of the fact that Nieves was suspended and sent to the farm team by Oh in July after storming out of the batter’s box during a game in Sapporo when he was yanked for a pinch hitter by the skipper after taking one pitch.

But that might as well be ancient history to the Giants’ faithful, who were all pumped up to see a Yomiuri victory on their home field, but walked away losers.

Veteran left-hander Kimiyasu Kudo, who started Game 1 of last year’s Japan Series for the Hawks against the Chunichi Dragons, took the ball for Yomiuri but didn’t fool anybody early, as several of the Hawks made good contact even when they made outs.

Hideki Matsui opened the game with a fine shoestring catch in center for the Giants off a line drive from Hiroshi Shibahara. After Yusuke Torigoe took a called third strike, Noriyoshi Omichi doubled down the left-field line, bringing Hiroki Kokubo to the plate. The Hawks couldn’t capitalize, however, as the slugger struck out swinging.

The Giants drew first blood in the bottom of the first inning, when Toshihisa Nishi led off with a double down the left-field line and two outs later Hideki Matsui crushed a 2-1 forkball from Daiei starter Kenichi Wakatabe deep into the center-field seats to put the Giants up 2-0.

“I knew that was a home run from the moment of impact,” said Matsui. “I was so excited, I ran around the bases full speed. It was a big game and you don’t get many chances to play in such a big game.”

“That big bang was unfortunate,” said Oh of Matsui’s homer. “We gave up three runs before Wakatabe was able to get into his rhythm. After the third inning we were able to play our game. Our relievers pitched well and our outfielders played good defense.”

Added Oh, “Matsunaka got us the runs we really wanted and it was important that he hit it (the home run) off Kudo.”

Jojima pulled a run back for the Hawks in the top of the second when he golfed a low pitch from Kudo high into the left-field stands to make it 2-1.

Wakatabe got into a jam in the bottom of the second, as he plunked Akira Eto with a pitch to start the frame, then gave up a single to Tomohiro Nioka before striking out catcher Yoshinori Murata and forcing Eto at third after fielding Kudo’s bunt.

But just when it looked like Wakatabe would get out of the inning, Nishi ripped a double up the alley in left-center to plate Nioka and give the Giants back a two-run lead at 3-1. Takayuki Shimizu then struck out to end the frame.

Kudo settled down in the third, setting down the side in order and striking out two batters as the Hawks began a streak of four innings where they showed little signs of life.

The Giants threatened again in the fourth, as Yoshinori Murata singled with one out and was sacrificed to second by Kudo. With first base open, the Hawks chose to put Nishi on with an unintentional intentional walk and then Wakatabe retired Shimizu on a fly to right.

Left-hander Masakazu Watanabe came on to pitch for the Hawks in the fifth, as Wakatabe departed having allowed three runs on six hits, while striking out six and walking one. Watanabe fanned Yoshinobu Takahashi and Kazuhiro Kiyohara before giving way to Keizaburo Tanoue in the sixth.

Kudo was on cruise control in the fourth through sixth innings, facing just nine men and striking out four.

Kokubo nearly made a fine play in the sixth, as Eto led off with a broken-bat bounder to third that Kokubo stayed with, despite the fact that half the bat went whizzing past him as he fielded the ball. Eto just beat Kokubo’s throw to first for an infield hit.

The Giants had runners on first and second with nobody out, after Nioka singled to left, but Tanoue escaped unscathed as he struck out Yoshinori Murata, and, after a sacrifice by Kudo and an intentional walk to Nishi, enticed Shimizu to ground out to first.

Omichi reached on a Texas Leaguer to right-center to lead off the seventh, then, with one out, Matsunaka tied the game 3-3 with a frozen rope over the right-field wall off a 1-2 pitch from Kudo.

“I’m really happy that I got it off Kudo,” said Matsunaka. “The way we won it today was the way we always win. We come up big in the latter half of the game. That home run I hit was a perfect shot. We had survived so many jams until then, so I knew that this chance would come.”

Reliever Ryuji Kimura took over in the eighth for Kudo, who left having surrendered three runs on five hits while striking out eight and walking none.

Closer Hiromi Makihara took the mound in the ninth, and after going 3-0 on Nieves who led off, got the left-handed slugger to take a big cut and miss when he had the green light. However, on the next pitch Nieves turned on a fastball and smashed a 133-meter blast off an advertising board in right field to put Daiei in front.

Omichi came to the plate next and rapped a double down the right-field line for his second two-bagger and third hit of the night. Oh then went against the book, when he had Kokubo, batting cleanup, bunt pinch-runner Arihito Muramatsu to third. Matsunaka came up next and was walked intentionally.

Jojima then tried to squeeze Muramatsu in from third, laying down a bunt that was fielded by first-baseman Kiyohara, who fired home to Shinichi Murata. Although we was tagged well after crossing the plate, Muramatsu was called out anyway by home-plate umpire Takeshi Kobayashi, who must have closed his eyes to miss a call that television replays indicated wasn’t even close.

Koji Akiyama gave the Hawks an insurance run when his grounder to third hit a seam in the turf and bounded over the head of Eto. Matsunaka scampered home just ahead of Shimizu’s throw to make it 5-3.

Daiei closer Rodney Pedraza, who had 35 saves during the regular season, pitched the ninth for the save, retiring Nishi on a fly to right, then allowing an infield single to Shimizu, before striking out Takahashi and getting Matsui to fly out to left to end it.

Shuji Yoshida got the victory, striking out two and walking one in two innings of work, while Makihara took the loss.

Sydney Olympic marathon gold-medalist Naoko Takahashi threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and, true to form, jogged out to the mound to perform the honor to the delight of the sellout crowd of 43,848.