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Imae keeps Chiba fires burning as Marines tame league-leading Lions

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CHIBA — Despite sitting fifth in the Pacific League standings, there’s a lot of fight left in the Chiba Lotte Marines.

On Thursday night, Toshiaki Imae made sure they could still fight for a spot in the Climax Series.

Imae drove in a run on a squeeze play early then hit a tie-breaking homer in the seventh off Seibu Lions ace Hideaki Wakui as the Marines tamed the league-leaders in a 4-3 win on a breezy night at Chiba Marine Stadium.

“There aren’t too many third-place hitters around that get a squeeze RBI and a game-winning home run in the same game,” Marines manager Bobby Valentine said. “Imae did a great job.”

The victory keeps the Marines, winners of five of their last six, in the thick of the race to reach the postseason.

Lotte trails the third-place Fukuoka Softbank Hawks by 1 1/2 games for the final playoff spot.

“I think we’re playing extremely well,” Valentine said. “I like the health of our team and I love the attitude of the team. I’ll take my chances the rest of the way with them.”

Tsuyoshi Nishioka had another productive day at the plate for the Marines, going 3-for-4 with a pair of runs scored.

“Nishioka played a very inspired game,” Valentine said. “He really got us going.”

The Marines took two-of-three from the Lions in the three-game series, but Seibu didn’t go quietly in the finale.

The Marines led 3-0 in the sixth when Seibu loaded the bases against starter Naoyuki Shimizu and pulled within one run on Yoshihito Ishii’s two-run double.

Shimizu (10-8) ran into trouble again in the next inning, giving up a leadoff double to Hiroyuki Oshima. The next batter, catcher Toru Hosokawa, laid down a sacrifice bunt to advance the runner to third and end Shimizu’s night.

Reliever Brian Sikorski retired Kenta Matsusaka for the second out of the inning, and Yasuyuki Kataoka followed with an RBI single to tie the score at 3-3.

Sikorski then gave up a single to Tomoaki Sato and was relieved by Yusuke Kawasaki, who struck out Takumi Kuriyama to end the inning.

Wakui (8-9) made quick work of Nishioka and Shunichi Nemoto in the bottom of the seventh and jumped ahead of Imae in the count on two forkballs.

He wasn’t so lucky with his next pitch, a high fastball that Imae sent sailing into the right-field stands for his 12th homer of the season.

“He swung at two balls to go two strikes, no balls then they tried to sneak a fastball by him,” Valentine said of Imae. “He’s just been a terrific hitter for us this entire season. He came through with a big No. 12 home run.”

Wakui took the loss after allowing four runs on nine hits, walking three and striking out five.

“It was a big notch in our belt to beat Wakui tonight,” Valentine said. “He’s a very good pitcher.”

Shimizu started strong, retiring the first eight batters he faced, but did not factor into the decision after allowing three runs — two earned — on five hits and striking out six.

“Shimizu’s been one of our top pitchers this year,” Valentine said. “He’s pitching like the leader of this staff.”

Kawasaki (2-4) retired all four batters he faced, striking out three, to earn the win. Tadahiro Ogino worked the ninth for his 22nd save of the season.

“I think we’re playing very well,” Valentine said. “Shimizu Nao pitched a great game and Kawasaki and Ogino were great just like they have been all year.”

Orix moves on up

SENDAI (Kyodo) Tuffy Rhodes delivered a grand slam and Alex Cabrera hit a two-run shot Thursday as the Orix Buffaloes extended their winning streak to six games and climbed into second place in the Pacific League with a 6-4 victory over the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

Fighters 4, Hawks 3

At Sapporo Dome, Makoto Kaneko hit a game-winning RBI single in the bottom of the ninth inning as Hokkaido Nippon Ham rallied past Softbank.

CENTRAL LEAGUE

Giants 6, Carp 2

At Matsuyama Stadium, Michihiro Ogasawara hit a tiebreaking homer to lead off a four-run eighth inning as second-place Yomiuri beat Hiroshima to move within 4.5 games of the Central League-leading Hanshin Tigers.

Swallows 5, Dragons 3

At Jingu Stadium, Sean Douglass threw a one-hitter over eight innings and Masakazu Fukukawa drove in two runs as Yakult held off a late rally by Chunichi for its fifth straight win.