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‘Little’ Matsui has big night for PL

No Ichiro, no problem for Pacific League All-Stars in opener

by Jack Gallagher

FUKUOKA — In the first All-Star Game of the post-Ichiro era, the Pacific League stars didn’t miss a beat as they routed their Central League counterparts 7-1 before a crowd of 32,000 at the Fukuoka Dome on Saturday night in the opener of the 2001 Sanyo All-Star Series.

With the PL’s former top gun now plying his trade in the major leagues, those who worried about where the circuit would find its new bona-fide stars when Ichiro departed for the Seattle Mariners, didn’t have to look far as there was a cavalcade of them strutting their stuff on this night.

Little Kazuo Matsui was the biggest star of all, contributing a home run, double and single to the PL cause to walk away with Most Valuable Player honors as the PL ended an eight-game losing streak that dated back to the first game of the 1997 All-Star Series. The teams tied one game in 1998.

“We wanted to win by all means today because the PL hadn’t won the last nine games and we were playing this game at (Daiei’s home) the Fukuoka Dome,” said Pacific League skipper Sadaharu Oh, who also pilots the Hawks. “We wanted to make the best of the matchup of the CL’s pitching and the PL’s batting. We took an early lead and played an ideal game. It was like a regular-season game.”

The event provided an all-around good show and featured a home-run contest, a pregame ceremony that included the opening of the Fukuoka Dome roof for a brief time, players from both teams tossing several autographed balls into the stands and all 12 team mascots in attendance and showing off their various comedic routines.

The hometown PL champion Daiei Hawks were well represented, as they had four players in the starting lineup (designated-hitter Nobuhiko Matsunaka, second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, right fielder Koji Akiyama and catcher Kenji Jojima) and four reserves (outfielder Hiroshi Shibahara, designated-hitter Hiroki Kokubo, pinch-hitter Noriyoshi Ohmichi and reliever Rodney Pedraza) see action.

The PL drew first blood after Matsui doubled up the left-center field alley off CL starter Yusaku Iriki to lead off the bottom of the first inning. He moved to third on a fly out to right by Yoshitomo Tani and scored on a sacrifice fly by Tuffy Rhodes.

Slugger Norihiro Nakamura then strode to the plate and crushed a 2-2 offering from Iriki high into the left-field stands to put the PL up 2-0. Nakamura’s blast was a prodigious one, truly highlight-reel material.

Superstar Hideki Matsui cut the CL deficit in half in the top of the second when he turned on a 1-1 pitch from CL starter Tomohiro Kuroki and rifled it into the right-field seats for a home run.

The PL broke the game open with four runs in the bottom of the third, when Jojima and Kazuo Matsui both singled to start the frame and scored on a double by Tani. Iriki then uncorked a wild pitch to Nakamura with one out to bring home Tani from third base and give the PL a 5-1 lead.

Matsunaka made it 6-1 in favor of the PL by doubling down the right-field line off Satoshi Iriki — who was brought in to relieve his brother Yusaku — with two out to plate Nakamura.

Kazuo Matsui, batting left-handed, boosted the PL margin to 7-1 with a solo homer off Satoshi Iriki with two out in the bottom of the fourth. Matsui’s roundtripper didn’t look like it was going to have enough juice to make it out at first, but hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity, then carried several rows into the right-field stands.

All-Star Notes

* The Central League edged the Pacific League 5-4 in the pregame home-run contest. Tuffy Rhodes (0), Hiroki Kokubo (2) and Alex Cabrera (2) represented the PL. Tomoaki Kanemoto (2), Roberto Petagine (2) and Hideki Matsui comprised the CL team, with Matsui delivering the decisive blast to break a 4-4 tie.

* Saturday’s result means the Pacific League has now won 69 All-Star Games, lost 58, and the teams have tied seven times.

* Former ozeki and part-time rapper Konishiki treated the crowd to a very respectable rendition of Kimigayo (Japan’s national anthem) prior to the game.

* The series continues with the second game tonight at Yokohama Stadium and concludes at the Sapporo Dome on Tuesday evening.