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Hammies victorious again

by Stephen Ellsesser

Facing the China Stars on Saturday, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters charged into Sunday’s championship game with their perfect Konami Cup Asia Series record intact.

News photo Fighters right-handed starting pitcher Satoru Kanemura delivers a pitch in Saturday’s game against the
China Stars at Tokyo Dome. Kanemura threw five shutout innings for Hokkaido Nippon Ham, which won the
game 6-1.
KYODO PHOTO

But with as the final score of the 6-1 game indicated, the Chinese were less like speed bumps than they had been in their previous games, against Taiwan’s La New Bears and South Korea’s Samsung Lions.

“We played better today,” China manager Jim Lefebvre said. “We made some mistakes, and that cost us, but we were competitive. But we were in the game today and kept things respectable.”

The Fighters will play La New, which beat Samsung 3-2 in the night game at 6 p.m. China had fallen in two previous days by the mercy rule to the Taiwanese and Korean champions, and Saturday, Fighters right-hander Satoru Kanemura earned his second victory since his late-season row with Fighters manager Trey Hillman.

The two mended fences after Kanemura criticized Nippon Ham’s field boss when he pulled the pitcher from a game during the pennant race, denying Kanemura the chance to post double figure victories for the season.

“I am grateful all my teammates gave me another chance,” said Kanemura, the winning pitcher in Game 4 of the Japan Series. “I’m so proud of what I did in the Japan Series, and I think what I did then and today will help me have a good season next year.”

One thing Saturday did do was force Kanemura out of his element stylistically.

Normally a hard thrower who lives on his fastball, Kanemura — as have most pitchers facing the Chinese in the Asia Series — threw more junk, something the Stars are not used to facing on domestic soil.

It worked well for Kanemura, as he fanned seven while walking one. The Chinese racked up six hits against him as the crowd of 12,337 looked on.

“Yesterday and the day before, I watched the Chinese team play and saw them struggle with breaking balls,” Kanemura said. “I threw a lot of breaking balls today, but personally, I usually throw more fastballs. But they didn’t give up. I think the Chinese hitters were tough.”

Indeed, China did a decent job of putting the ball in play, except when runners were on base.

The Stars ended innings by striking out on three different occasions, including in the third with runners two runners on base. China stranded eight runners on the afternoon, including four in scoring position.

“We didn’t get the big hits when we needed them,” Lefebvre said. “We just couldn’t put the ball in play at those crucial times, when that was all we needed to do.”

Fans who left early missed China’s offensive bright spot — center fielder Li Lei’s solo home run off Hideki Okajima in the top of the ninth inning.

“It’s not all about home runs, is it?” Lefebvre said. “We got the home run, which was nice, but the key is putting the ball in play. That’s how you score runs. It’s not how you hit the ball.”

Nippon Ham had better luck with making contact, and with the longball.

Leadoff hitter Hichori Morimoto reached base on an error in the bottom of the first, and after a Kensuke Tanaka single and an Atsunori Inaba double, Morimoto had put the Chinese behind. Catcher Shinji Takahashi hit a sacrifice fly to left, scoring Tanaka.

After helping to make the Stars pay for their mistakes, Takahashi showed them a thing or two about timely hitting in his next at-bat, when his two-run homer put Nippon Ham up 5-0.

Takeshi Ito, Brad Thomas and Shintaro Ejiri kept China off the scoreboard out of the bullpen until Li spoiled the shutout.

But Li’s shot mattered little in the final tally as Naoto Inada’s run-scoring double in the fifth inning had already added further to Nippon Ham’s lead.

In the night game, both the Korean and Taiwanese champs posted two-run tallies in the fourth, but it was La New shortstop Lin Chihsheng’s tiebreaking solo homer in the bottom of the sixth against Lim Chang Yong that made the difference.

Lin’s blast made a winner of Huang Chun-chung, who threw just two pitches but earned the victory.