The Koji Uehara Show took center stage Saturday night, playing to a packed house at the Tokyo Dome in Game 1 of the 2002 Japan Series.
Yomiuri ace Uehara struck out a dozen Lions over nine complete innings while Takayuki Shimizu and Kazuhiro Kiyohara each hit a two-run home run to provide all the offense he needed as the Giants topped Seibu 4-1 in the opener of Japan’s version of the annual best-of-seven fall classic.
The much-anticipated matchup of two of the best young arms in Japanese baseball never panned out. While Uehara did his part — coming up one strikeout short of tying a Japan Series record — rusty Seibu ace Daisuke Matsuzaka never made it to the fourth inning in a battle of the 1999 Rookies of the Year.
“I wasn’t thinking of the record,” Uehara said. “In a game like this, it’s just important to get the win and that’s what I was trying to do.”
The Giants got on the board first, when pitcher Uehara led off the third inning with a single to left, the first hit given up by Matsuzaka. Leadoff man Shimizu then stepped up to the plate and, with the count at 2-1, the Yomiuri left fielder turned on a 145-kph fastball and sent a souvenir into the orange-clad oendan camped out in the right-field bleachers.
After shortstop Tomohiro Nioka singled and stole second, Yoshinobu Takahashi was issued a walk by Matsuzaka. The young Seibu ace then struck out Giants cleanup hitter Hideki Matsui for the second time on the night, just as Nioka was thrown out trying to steal third.
Former Lions star Kiyohara then cemented his reputation as Japan’s “Mr. Jugatsu” (Mr. October) when he cranked a shot deep — very deep — over the fence in left for a 4-0 Giants lead.
“It was a fastball right over the heart of the plate,” said 17-year veteran Kiyohara of his mammoth blast.
“This is a very important game and I just wanted to drive a run in,” added the big first baseman, who had an injury-plagued season this year.
Matsuzaka then got Giants catcher Shinnosuke Abe to ground out to end the inning, but that was all for the “Kid” as Matsuzaka was lifted for a pinch-hitter the following inning.
The line on Matsuzaka, who had pitched only twice since Aug. 16 due to elbow and leg injuries, was not pretty: three innings pitched, four hits allowed, four earned runs, three strikeouts, one walk and one hit batter in taking the loss.
Kiyohara was also solid on defense, flashing the leather in the top of the seventh inning when he snared a hot liner off the bat of pinch-hitter Susumu Otomo and dove back to the bag at first to double off Hiroshi Hirao, who had singled to left-center to start the inning.
But Uehara was the true star of the night. Although the 27-year-old right-hander gave up a sharp single up the middle to Lions shortstop Kazuo Matsui on the very first pitch of the game, he quickly settled down and held the top five in the Lions order to just two hits over nine innings, including a ball that barely cleared the left-field fence in the the top of the ninth by Alex Cabrera.
Uehara allowed six hits on the evening and issued two walks to go along with his 12 strikeouts. Cabrera, who finished the season stuck on 55 home runs to equal the Japan single-season record held by Sadaharu Oh and Tuffy Rhodes, finally got that elusive 56th dinger, but it was a case of too little, too late.
Cabrera finished the night 1-for-3, fanning twice, while Giants slugger Hideki Matsui did not have one of his better outings either, going 0-for-2 with two strikeouts and a pair of walks.
“I was making good swings and he gave me a good fastball to hit,” Cabrera said of his late homer. “(Uehara) was pretty good tonight.”