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Japan draws first blood

by Rob Smaal

The fans may have come out to see major-league stars like Ichiro Suzuki, Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi, but it was a local boy who stole the show.

Yomiuri Giants ace Koji Uehara allowed just one run on five hits and struck out eight over six innings Sunday at the Tokyo Dome — including Bonds, the most feared hitter in baseball today, three times and Giambi twice — as a team of Japanese All-Stars beat their North American counterparts 8-4 in the opener of a seven-game series.

Bonds and Giambi each had a pair of homers in a warmup game against the Giants on Saturday, an 8-1 win by the MLB stars. Prior to Sunday, San Francisco slugger Bonds, the likely National League MVP this year, had not struck out three times in a game since Aug. 8, 2001.

Offensively, the Japan side erupted for five runs in the third inning off Florida Marlins starter Brad Penny. Penny, who didn’t make it out of the inning in taking the loss, gave up six hits in a row at one point.

Hanshin Tigers second baseman Makoto Imaoka got things started with his third-inning leadoff homer. Chunichi’s Kosuke Fukudome hit a bloop single to left with the bases loaded later in the inning to drive in another run. Slugger Hideki Matsui, a free agent with an eye on the majors who is playing in what could be his final games in a Yomiuri uniform, then slapped a double past first baseman Giambi into the right-field corner to plate two more runs.

Alex Cabrera of the Seibu Lions, the only foreign player voted to the Japan squad, followed up with a deep sacrifice fly to center to make it 5-0. Cabrera, who had a good day at the plate with three RBIs including a seventh-inning solo homer, had also homered twice earlier in the day when he played in the annual Pacific League East-West All-Star Game in Shizuoka.

“I swung hard and didn’t hold anything back,” the big Venezuelan said of his home run off Randy Wolf of the Phillies in the seventh. “I’m just really happy to be playing in this series, since the fans voted for me and my teammates have treated me very warmly.”

Ichiro, playing in his native country for the first time in his Seattle Mariners uniform, was greeted by hundreds of flashbulbs whenever he stepped into the batter’s box. The 2001 AL MVP and Rookie of the Year had a miserable day with the bat, however, going 0-for-4 while flying out four times.

Minnesota Twins outfielder Torii Hunter nailed a solo shot off Uehara in the fifth inning and doubled off the base of the wall in center field in the bottom of the ninth, an inning which saw the major-leaguers rally for three runs against Hiroshima Carp closer Yasuhiro Oyamada with three hits, two fielder’s choices, a walk and a passed ball.

“He’s been really tough on us,” Hunter said of facing Uehara. “I was looking to jump on that first pitch and he left it up and I was able to hit it out. I was just glad to get us on the scoreboard.”

Hideki Matsui went 1-for-4 with two walks Sunday after also going 1-for-4 in Saturday’s loss.

“In (Saturday’s) game, I felt they pitched me really well,” said Matsui, who can begin negotiating with MLB clubs this week. “I haven’t been able to practice for a while, but I’m beginning to enjoy the atmosphere of this series. It’s exciting.”

The Japan stars had 18 total hits — 15 of them singles — off Penny, Wolf, Mike Fetters and Scott Schoeneweis. The visitors finished with 10 hits off Uehara, Shugo Fujii, Ryota Igarashi and Oyamada.

The teams now hit the road for games in Fukuoka, Osaka and Sapporo before finishing up with three tilts back at the Tokyo Dome from Nov. 15-17.

** Notes — A sellout crowd of 55,000 was announced . . . Uehara was named game MVP for his efforts, while Hunter was voted the top MLB player . . . Former Yomiuri Giants star Shigeo Nagashima threw out the ceremonial first pitch.