OSAKA — Eiji Mizuguchi stole the show from the big names at the Osaka Dome on Monday night, going 3-for-4, reaching base four times and driving in the decisive run for the Kintetsu Buffaloes in a 2-1 victory over the Seibu Lions.
The win put the Buffaloes back into first place by half a game over the Lions.
The first contest of this key three-game series featured everything a fan could possibly wish for. Both clubs started their aces (Daisuke Matsuzaka and Katsuhiko Maekawa), Tuffy Rhodes was on the verge of home-run history and, to top it off, it was a “Salaryman Monday Night Special.”
For every Kintetsu home game on a Monday night this season, the team has provided free admission to any male full-time worker who turned up with a business card and office identification badge. Not a bad deal if you can get it.
Rhodes faced Matsuzaka four times, going 1-for-3 with a walk, and is still holding at 54 home runs, one off Sadaharu Oh’s single-season mark, with nine games remaining.
Rhodes singled up the middle in his first at-bat in the bottom of the first inning on a 2-2 pitch from Matsuzaka. In his second trip to the plate in the third, Rhodes flied to left on an 0-1 pitch.
Rhodes batted for the third time in the fifth, striking out on a 2-2 pitch. In his final plate appearance of the evening, Rhodes walked in the eighth on a full count.
Maekawa (12-9) struggled with his control in the first inning, walking the first two batters, Masaji Shimizu and Tatsuya Ozeki. He then retired Kazuo Matsui and Alex Cabrera on foul outs before giving up a single to Scott McClain that put the Lions in front 1-0.
Maekawa then issued his third free pass of the frame — to Kazuhiro Wada — to load the bases, but finally put out the fire by fanning designated-hitter Tetsuya Kakiuchi.
Matsuzaka (15-13) was in a jam of his own in the bottom of the first, loading the bases on singles to Mizuguchi, Rhodes and Koichi Isobe, before walking Yuji Yoshioka to force home Rhodes and tie the score 1-1.
But Matsuzaka also escaped relatively unscathed, retiring Kenji Kawaguchi on a broken-bat ground out to second base to end the inning.
Both hurlers cruised through the next three innings before Kintetsu took the lead in the fifth on an RBI single by Mizuguchi, which scored Shawn Gilbert, who had led off the inning with a single.
“Matsuzaka is a good pitcher, so I try to raise the level of my game when I face him,” said Mizuguchi. “My manager encouraged me to really go after him tonight.”
Mizuguchi said the team is filled with a range of emotions as each game increases in importance.
“There was a lot of nervous energy tonight,” said Mizuguchi. “We were a bit tight at times, but even then there was laughter in the dugout. The atmosphere on the team is very good right now.”
Maekawa was replaced by rookie Hisashi Aikyo to start the sixth. Maekawa allowed four hits and four walks in five innings and struck out none.
Aikyo lasted all of five pitches, yielding singles to Cabrera and McClain, before forcing Cabrera at third on an attempted sacrifice by Wada. Cabrera slid hard into third on the play, upending Buffs third baseman Norihiro Nakamura, but was out just the same.
Iori Sekiguchi took over for Aikyo, and after walking pinch-hitter Ken Suzuki, induced Takayuki Murakami to hit into an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play.
Nakamura led off the bottom of the sixth with a high smash deep to left field that looked like it might clear the fence, but it was caught at the base of the wall by Shimizu.
Koichi Misawa took the hill for the Buffaloes in the seventh and, after getting two quick outs, gave up a single to Tatsuya Ozeki and walked Matsui. Misawa then gave way to Akira Okamoto, who walked Cabrera on four straight pitches, then struck McClain out looking on a 2-2 pitch.
McClain took umbrage with the home plate umpire’s call, going nose-to-nose with the arbiter, before being ejected. McClain slammed his helmet to the ground upon being tossed, then tried to go after the umpire, before being held back by Seibu teammates and coaches.
Akinori Otsuka worked the ninth for the Buffs to notch his 29th save before a crowd of 46,000 boisterous fans.
Fighters 6, Hawks 3
Yukio Tanaka drove home three runs while Yutaka Nakamura went 3-for-4 as lowly Nippon Ham beat Daiei at the Fukuoka Dome.
The Hawks are now 21/2 games behind the PL-leading Buffaloes, who are half a game ahead of Seibu.
Fighters hurler Hiroshi Shibakusa (5-4) picked up the win, pitching 22/3 scoreless innings in relief of starter Akio Shimizu.
Tomokazu Iba pitched a perfect 21/3 innings for his third save.
BlueWave 8, Marines 2
George Arias had three hits, including a solo homer in the fourth inning for the go-ahead run, as Orix beat Lotte at Chiba Marine Stadium.
Starter Shinichi Kato (9-7) combined with reliever Masanobu Okubo on an eight-hitter, giving up two runs on six hits over seven innings for his first win in 21/2 months. Okubo earned his 12th save.
Yoshitomo Tani had four RBIs for Orix, which improved to .500.
Gomez going home
NAGOYA (Kyodo) Chunichi Dragons slugger Leo Gomez headed for the United States on Monday for treatment on a troubling right knee and to check on his family in the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks in Washington and New York.
According to Dragons public relations director Mitsuo Kodama, Gomez has been worried about his family, who live about 30-40 minutes by car from the Pentagon which was devastated Tuesday in a crash by an airliner that had been hijacked by terrorists.
Gomez met with manager Senichi Hoshino on Sunday to discuss the matter and was given permission to return home, even though 17 games remain on the Dragons’ schedule this season.
Kodama said that Gomez would not return this season, but indicated that the club hopes to conclude a contract with the slugger for next year.
Gomez, who joined the team in midseason, played in 88 games for Chunichi, hitting .306 with 19 home runs.