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Buffaloes soldier on as Isobe grabs some glory

by Jack Gallagher

OSAKA — Another game, another hero for the Kintetsu Buffaloes. And so the story goes, as Kintetsu’s incredible march toward the Pacific League pennant continues.

Central League WonLostTiedPct.GB Yakult 70 48 5 .593 – Yomiuri 71 58 2 .550 4.5 Hiroshima 58 57 7 .504 10.5 Yokohama 56 62 3 .475 14.0 Chunichi 57 64 4 .471 14.5 Hanshin 50 73 1 .407 22.5 Pacific League WonLostTiedPct.GB Kintetsu 73 58 2 .557 – Daiei 71 61 1 .538 2.5 Seibu 72 62 0 .537 2.5 Orix 63 63 4 .500 7.5 Lotte 61 67 2 .477 10.5 Nippon Ham 50 79 3 .388 22.0

Koichi Isobe was Wednesday night’s star, rocketing a three-run homer in the seventh inning to propel the Buffaloes past the Seibu Lions 6-5 for a sweep of their crucial three-game series.

With the victory, Kintetsu opened up a 21/2-game lead on the Lions and Daiei Hawks with just seven games left to play in the regular season. The Buffs all reduced their magic number to five.

There is nothing in sports quite like watching a young team of underdogs gel and begin to believe in themselves. Even though they fell behind 3-0 early in the game, you just had the feeling the Buffaloes were going to pull it out, and pull it out they did.

Tuffy Rhodes remained at 54 homers, still one short of Sadaharu Oh’s single-season record, going 1-for-3 with a pair of walks.

Rhodes walked on a 3-2 pitch from Seibu starter Fumiya Nishiguchi in the bottom of the first inning. In the third, he singled on a 1-1 pitch from Nishiguchi.

Leading off the bottom of the fifth, Rhodes came the closest yet to hitting his 55th, jumping on a 1-1 pitch from reliever Shinji Mori and giving it a good ride. The ball looked like it was headed out, as a partisan crowd of 32,000 roared, but right-fielder Tetsuya Kakiuchi caught it with his back against the wall.

Rhodes, however, knew he had missed it, as he ran all the way to first base still holding the bat.

In the seventh, Rhodes walked again on a 3-2 pitch from reliever Yoshihiro Doi. In his final at-bat of the game, in the eighth, Rhodes struck out on a full count against Takashi Ishii.

“This is what it’s all about right here,” said Rhodes. “We are playing great baseball and there are only seven games left. The Lions swept us two weeks ago, and now we returned the favor.”

Rhodes wasn’t worried about the home-run chase.

“All the balls I saw were high tonight. I’ve got to make them throw strikes. The third time up, I knew I had missed it.”

The Buffaloes now have three days off before their next game against Nippon Ham at home on Sunday.

“It’s a lot easier to take three days off coming off a win,” said Rhodes.

Kakiuchi staked Seibu to a 2-0 lead when he clubbed a 2-2 offering from Kintetsu starter Ken Kadokura into the left-field seats with two out in the second inning.

Kadokura’s evening was a short one, as the right-hander was given the hook after allowing singles to Kazuo Matsui and Kazuhiro Wada in the third inning. Kadokura gave up five hits and no walks in

21/3 innings and was charged with three earned runs.

Hisashi Aikyo took over and promptly walked Alex Cabrera to load the bases with one out. Scott McClain followed with a sacrifice fly to deep center that scored Matsui and made it 3-0 Lions.

Kintetsu fought back in the fourth, as Koichi Isobe and Yuji Yoshioka singled off Nishiguchi to open the frame and designated-hitter Kenji Kawaguchi stroked a double just fair down the left-field line to score Isobe and cut the deficit to 3-1.

Shawn Gilbert came up next and whacked a single to left to score Yoshioka to make it 3-2. Kenji Furukubo, who had three RBIs in Tuesday’s victory, then tied the game with a sacrifice fly to right that scored Kawaguchi.

Seibu took the lead back in the fifth, scoring a run with two out off Koichi Misawa on a single by Wada, a walk to Cabrera and an RBI single by McClain.

Kintetsu then grabbed the lead for good in the seventh when Mizuguchi doubled off Mori, who had replaced Nishiguchi to start the fifth. After Doi walked Rhodes an out later, Hayato Aoki came on and watched Isobe take him downtown over the right-field wall for his 15th homer to put the Buffs up 6-4.

Pinch-hitter Masahide Kaizuka doubled in the eighth off Kintetsu closer Akinori Otsuka to score Ken Suzuki, cutting the margin to 6-5.

With one out and runners at second and third, Otsuka fanned Matsui and then Tatsuya Ozeki hit a foul fly that Rhodes, running at full speed, snagged just in front of the wall down the left-field line to end the inning.

“I was ready to run through the wall to get that ball, it didn’t matter to me,” said Rhodes of the play.

Otsuka put the exclamation on the victory, and his 24th save, by striking out Cabrera and McClain to end it.

Hawks 7, Fighters 1

Kenji Jojima slugged a three-run home run in a five-run third inning as Daiei downed Nippon Ham at the Fukuoka Dome.

Tomohiro Nagai (3-2) gave up five hits and fanned five over 71/3 innings for the win.

BlueWave 6, Marines 5

Yoshitomo Tani drove in four runs to lead Orix over Lotte at Chiba Marine Stadium.

CENTRAL LEAGUE

Carp 4, Dragons 1

Ken Takahashi (9-7) scattered two hits and struck out six over the distance, leading the Carp past Chunichi at Hiroshima Stadium.

Hiroshima right fielder Takahiro Arai drilled a three-run homer off Kenshin Kawakami (6-8) in the fifth.

Giants 4, Tigers 0

Hisanori Takahashi (8-8) pitched a five-hit shutout to pace Yomiuri over Hanshin at the Tokyo Dome.

Hideki Matsui hit a sacrifice fly to drive in a run and Kazuhiro Kiyohara singled home a run in the sixth.

In the seventh, the Giants added a pair of runs on a wild pitch and a squeeze bunt by Toshihisa Nishi.

Swallows 3, BayStars 0

At Jingu Stadium, Roberto Petagine belted a two-run homer in a three-run seventh inning to help Yakult win its fourth consecutive game by defeating Yokohama.

Kazuhisa Ishii (11-5) yielded four hits to win his first decision in a month. Shingo Takatsu pitched the ninth inning for his 34th save.