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Fighters off to flyer in Asia Series

by Stephen Ellsesser

Two times were enough for Atsunori Inaba and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

News photoHokkaido Nippon Ham outfielder Atsunori Inaba singles home a go-ahead run in the sixth inning of Thursday’s Asia Series game against South Korea’s Samsung Lions at Tokyo Dome. The Fighters won 7-1.
KYODO PHOTO

The right fielder knocked in the go-ahead run twice, and the second time stuck, as the Fighters opened the Konami Cup Asia Series with a 7-1 win over the Samsung Lions on Thursday at Tokyo Dome.

Inaba drove in a pair of runs, and Michihiro Ogasawara was 3-for-4 with three doubles and a pair of RBIs as the Fighters racked up 10 hits.

In some ways, Nippon Ham stayed true to the form that delivered its Japan Series championship in October, playing a close game early before pulling away later and hanging on.

This time, the crowd was a mere 15,147 strong — unlike the 42,000-plus who piled into Sapporo Dome for the championship clinchers.

“I thought there were some pitches we should have hit early on, but our pitching was strong again,” said Fighters manager Trey Hillman. “I was pleased even though it took our bats a little while to get going.”

Inaba’s solo home run in the fourth inning broke a scoreless tie, putting Nippon Ham on the board, but the South Korean champions evened the tally in the bottom of the frame, plating an unearned run against Fighters starter Tomoya Yagi.

In his next at-bat, Inaba singled to right, scoring the first of four Nippon Ham runs in the sixth, when the Fighters took over.

“I knew I wanted to perform well for the Asia Series, and I was able to keep in pretty good condition,” Inaba said. “I was ready for the challenge.”

Hichori Morimoto opened the fourth with a double off the wall in right-center field that chased Lions starter Lim Dong Gyu.

Kang Young Sik wasn’t very effective in relief, the only out he recorded against four batters a sacrifice that put Morimoto on third.

Ogasawara walked, and Inaba’s single put the Fighters back on top.

Kuniyuki Kimoto singled softly to load the bases, and pinch-hitter Yukio Tanaka — the first batter to face Kwon Oh Joon, Samsung’s third pitcher of the inning — drew in a walk, driving in a run.

“Our pitchers had some control issues tonight, so maybe that’s why they hit us so well,” said Samsung manager Sun Dong Yol, a former Chunichi Dragons pitcher. “But their hitters were good.”

Shinya Tsuruoka singled in another run before Kwon finally stopped the bleeding.

The bullpen situation was much better for the boys from Sapporo, who had to get started early because postseason ironman Yagi — who bested Kazumi Saito in a shutout during the Pacific League playoffs and went six innings in his Japan Series start — felt soreness in his shoulder.

Yagi went four-plus innings, striking out three and walking three.

“His shoulder felt a little heavy, and he monitored the situation very well,” Hillman said. “Thankfully he was smart about it. After he came out, I asked him if he had hurt himself, and he told me emphatically, ‘No, I didn’t hurt myself.’ “

In the bottom of the fourth, Fighters shortstop Makoto Kaneko overthrew Ogasawara on a routine grounder, and Cho Dong Chan took first and second. Designated hitter Yang Joon Hyuk lost control of his bat into the right corner of the infield, and his soft putout sent Cho to third base, where he scored on Shim Joung Soo’s sac fly.

Yagi checked out after walking Park Jung Hwan in the fifth.

Four Fighters relievers blanked Samsung over the next five innings, playing their first game since Nippon Ham fired pitching coach Mike Brown after the Japan Series.

The Lions combined for two walks and two hits against Fighters relievers, allowing only two runners into scoring position, including the inherited man from Yagi.

Nippon Ham tacked on two more runs in the ninth as Ogasawara’s third two-bagger of the night scored Kaneko and Kensuke Tanaka.

Tournament play between the club champions from South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, as well as the Chinese national team, will be round-robin style through Saturday, and the top two teams will play Sunday at the Big Egg for the Asia Series championship, won last season by the Chiba Lotte Marines.

“We’re in national competition now, and I am comfortable with the way the players are representing Japan,” Hillman said. “They are taking that seriously.”

In the early game, the Taiwanese champion La New Bears picked up a 12-2 mercy-rule win over the China Stars, going ahead by double digits in the eighth inning and bringing the contest to an early close.

Bears designated hitter Chen Chin-feng was a force, hitting two home runs, one of which was a grand slam.

China will play Samsung on Friday at 12:30 p.m., and the Fighters will take on the Bears in the late game, beginning at 6:30 p.m.