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CENTRAL LEAGUE CLIMAX SERIES

Woods: Dragons fire at perfect time

by Ed Odeven

Kenichi Nakata and Kenshin Kawakami were the losing pitchers in the Chunichi Dragons’ final games of 2006, dropping Games 4 and 5 of the Japan Series, respectively, against the champion Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

The right-handers experienced a reversal of playoff fortune over the weekend.

In Game 1 of the Central League Climax Series’ first stage, Kawakami pitched seven scoreless innings of two-hit ball and earned the victory in the Dragons’ 7-0 win over the Hanshin Tigers. He had nine strikeouts and zero walks, a statistical combination that makes countless pitching coaches from New York to Nagoya drool.

“He did a great job,” Dragons first baseman Tyrone Woods said of Kawakami. “He could’ve (gone) the whole game, but Ochiai-san (manager Hiromitsu Ochiai) wanted to utilize the bullpen a little more, which was a good idea.”

Nakata worked five innings of one-run ball, struck out five and issue one base on balls in Chunichi’s 5-3 victory on Sunday, a series-clinching triumph that gives Ochiai’s club three days rest before it faces the Yomiuri Giants, the CL division winner, in the next round.

(Game 1 of the CL Climax Series’ second stage, a best-of-five format, is slated for Thursday night at Tokyo Dome.)

Before the Dragons began the playoffs, looking to repeat as CL champions and return to the Japan Series, Ochiai didn’t give a fiery speech in the clubhouse. In other words, there was no “Win one for the Gipper speech.”

He kept his message simple, observed Woods.

“Ochiai-san, he really didn’t go out and be too vocal, not at all,” said Woods, who slugged a two-run homer in the first inning of Game 1. “He just goes out and tells us (about) the important parts of our hitting, what we are doing wrong with our hitting, and just lets everything else take care of itself.”

It worked. The Dragons, the CL’s second-place team in the regular season, wasted no time in raising Tigers manager Akinobu Okada’s blood pressure on Sunday evening.

Shortstop Hirokazu Ibata reached on a one-out walk in the first inning. Masahiko Morino followed with a hit and Woods walked to load the bases. Norihiro Nakamura, who is 5-for-8 this postseason, delivered a two-run single to put Chunichi in control.

Seconds later, Lee Byung Kyu crushed Keiji Uezono’s 0-1 pitch over the right-field wall to make it 5-0.

“We started off the game different (with a big inning) and the players were really prepared for this series,” Ochiai told Kyodo News.

“We fought harder than during the regular season but the Tigers are strong, so they wouldn’t go quietly.”

Uezono didn’t return to the mound for the second inning.

“Today it was the fault of our starter. Five runs are way too many. This was a game that we had to win by any means necessary,” Okada told Kyodo News.

Woods said timely pitching and timely hitting were the keys for his team to eliminate the Tigers.

“If we can keep the momentum we had last night, we’ll be OK,” Woods said on Sunday after taking his hacks during pre-game batting practice.

Though the Tigers managed to trim the lead to 5-3, getting a pair of runs in the eighth on Tomoaki Kanemoto’s clutch double and Shinjiro Hiyama’s sacrifice fly, closer Hitoki Iwase, the Dragons’ fourth pitcher, worked the final 1 2/3 innings to secure the win.

So now it’s time for Woods to sit back, relax and enjoy the Pacific League Climax Series’ second stage games between the Marines and Fighters on TV, right?

“No,” he said. “Right now I’m too focused on our game.

“I’d rather watch my hitting tape and see what I’m doing wrong against certain pitchers.”

Woods’ commitment to improvement has made him a consistent player. He became a star while playing for the Doosan Bears of the Korea Baseball Organization from 1998-2002.

Since then, he’s been a consistent power threat, hitting 35 or more home runs in each of his five seasons in Japan.

This season, Woods had 35 homers (second in the CL) to go along with 102 RBIs. He walks a lot (121 times) and strikes out often, too — 153 times in 2007 to be exact.

“I’m a very aggressive hitter. I love to swing the bat,” said Woods, who had 40 more walks this season than any other player in the two-game series (Kanemoto had 81).

“For me to walk 121 times, I never did that in my career and it tends to be very, very frustrating at times.”

What hasn’t been frustrating for Woods, however, has been watching the dynamic effort Morino has given the Dragons game after game.

“With me having 121 walks this season and Morino was hitting behind me,” Woods said. “Morino really stepped up and showed everybody if you’re going to walk the guy (hitting cleanup), I’m going to make you pay, and that’s exactly what he did.

Morino had a pair of hits in four at-bats on Sunday. He went 5-for-9 against the Tigers, including a Game 1 homer.

Though Chunichi supporters won’t stop rooting for outfielder Kosuke Fukudome’s return to the lineup next season, Morino has helped them forget about the injured star’s productivity, for a few more weeks at least.

“Morino has been very clutch all year for us,” Woods said of the versatile Morino, who saw time at all three outfield positions, second base and third base this season and batted .294 in 142 games. “Morino really stepped up to the plate — he’s delivered in clutch situations.”

The Dragons delivered another lesson — well, nothing new but a valuable one nevertheless — in their sweep: the valuable of the sacrifice bunt.

Kawakami did it twice on Saturday. While doing so, he issued an unspoken challenge to the team’s other pitchers to replicate his efforts when they step into the batter’s box.

“The pitchers also play an important role in us scoring runs,” Woods said, praising Kawakami’s bunting skills.

Now after two wins, two games in which they never trailed, the Dragons prepare for their showdown with the Giants.

And the Dragons are right where they want to be.