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Yamasaki provides late-game heroics

PL wins opener of 2008 NPB All-Star Series

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OSAKA — Entering the bottom of the ninth of the first game in the NPB All-Star Series, it was pretty much a given the game’s MVP would be a 40-year-old veteran.

It just wasn’t the one everyone was expecting.

Fukuoka Softbank Hawks slugger Nobuhiko Matsunaka tied the game with a single in the ninth and the next batter, Tohoku Rakuten’s Takeshi Yamasaki, won it with a “sayonara” single as the Pacific League beat the Central League 5-4 in front of 33,618 fans on Thursday at Kyocera Dome.

Yamasaki, who didn’t play until his pinch-hit appearance in the ninth, made the most of his one opportunity at the plate.

“I sat on the bench all game and got a chance at the end,” Yamasaki said. “So I am glad I could make the most of it.”

The 40-year-old was named the game’s MVP and has now won the award in both leagues. Yamasaki was the MVP of the second game of the 2001 All-Star Series as a member of the CL’s Chunichi Dragons.

“It’s a really good feeling to be named All-Star MVP, no matter which league, especially since I have not been having such a good season this year,” Yamasaki said.

The CL looked to be on the way to victory entering the bottom of the ninth with a 4-3 lead. Things went south quickly as Rakuten’s Rick Short led off the inning with a double off Hanshin Tigers setup man Tomoyuki Kubota, who was in the closer’s role for a change.

After recording an out, Kubota gave up a hard-hit single to Chiba Lotte’s Tsuyoshi Nishioka, which left the PL with runners on first and third. Matsunaka then tied the game with a deep single to right before Yamasaki’s heroics.

The win was the first since 2004 for the PL, snapping a six-game losing streak in the All-Star Series.

Yamasaki’s clutch hit also denied crowd favorite Tomoaki Kanemoto, of the Hanshin Tigers, a chance to win the award in front of the Osaka faithful.

After firing a blank in the home run derby prior to the game, Kanemoto homered off Hokkaido Nippon Ham’s Yu Darvish in his first at-bat and drove in another run with a single in the seventh. Kanemoto finished 2-for-4 with two RBIs.

“I feel sorry for Kanemoto, especially since we’re here in Osaka where he has a lot of fans,” Yamasaki said. “But on behalf of the Pacific League All-Star players, I am happy we could show the fans some good baseball and hope we could appeal to them and show that we also play an exciting brand of baseball.”

Orix’s Daisuke Kato worked an inning of relief to earn the win in his home stadium. Kubota gave up two runs on four hits in a third of an inning to take the loss.

The PL found itself down a run early but pulled even on a sacrifice fly by Softbank’s Hiroki Kokubo in the bottom of the second.

Nippon Ham’s Hichori Morimoto drove in a run in the fifth and the PL added another later in the inning to extend the lead to 3-1.

Seibu Lions pitcher Kazuyuki Hoashi entered the game in the seventh and ran into trouble early after giving up a pair of hits to Chunichi’s Tyrone Woods and Yomiuri Giants star Alex Ramirez to leave the CL with runners on the corners.

Kanemoto drove in Woods with a single to shallow left field that made the score 3-2. Yokohama’s Seiichi Uchikawa connected on an RBI single later in the inning to tie the score 3-3. Chunichi’s Kazuhiro Wada capped the rally with a deep run-scoring single to right to make it 4-3.

Kanemoto was named the game’s best batter, earning a check for ¥1 million for his efforts. Orix’s Shogo Yamamoto and Matsunaka also received ¥1 million for being named best pitcher and best batter, respectively.

Yamasaki pocketed ¥3 million as the MVP.

The All-Star Series shifts to Yokohama Stadium on Friday with a scheduled start time of 6:10 p.m.

The announced starters are Chunichi’s Kenshin Kawakami (7-5, 2.54) for the CL and Rakuten’s Hisashi Iwakuma (14-3, 2.14) for the PL.