The Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants met Friday in the first game of the biggest series thus far of the 2008 season.
Despite a star-studded cast of veterans on both sides, it was the youngest player on the field who shone the brightest.
Nineteen-year-old Hayato Sakamoto drove in three runs to help the Giants draw first blood in the three-game set with a 6-4 win in front of a raucous crowd of 45,744 at Tokyo Dome.
Sakamoto singled, doubled and tripled on a 3-for-4 night at the plate in what is likely the most important series of his young career.
“This was a game we had to win,” Sakamoto said. “I was rather nervous but so happy I was able to calm down enough to get some hits and contribute to our victory tonight.”
Twelve-year veterans Takahiro Suzuki and Michihiro Ogasawara backed the youngster with home runs as the Giants moved within two games of the first-place Tigers in the Central League standings.
The switch-hitting Suzuki’s home run was the first of his career batting from the right side, while Ogasawara’s shot was the 300th of his career.
“I tried to imagine this was just another game but it is special,” Suzuki said. “I hope we can win again tomorrow and pull within a game of the Tigers.”
Giants closer Marc Kroon also reached a milestone.
Kroon worked a scoreless ninth to record the 120th save of his Nippon Professional Baseball career, tying him with Eddie Gaillard for the most saves all time by a foreign pitcher. Kroon’s league-leading 36 saves this year is a personal-best and also a Giants franchise record.
The Kyojin have now won eight straight and can move into a virtual tie atop the CL standings if they complete the weekend sweep.
“With this win, we can look toward tomorrow and try to keep the winning streak going,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said.
Yomiuri starter Seth Greisinger gave up three runs on six hits and struck out five over seven innings to secure his second consecutive 16-win season. Greisinger (16-8) hasn’t lost since Aug. 24 and has won five of his last seven starts.
Starting pitcher Yuya Ando lasted four innings for the Tigers, allowing three runs on three hits. Ando, who took the loss, walked three and struck out three.
In the second inning, the Giants took an early lead on Sakamoto’s RBI triple to left which drove in Yoshinobu Takahashi to make the score 1-0.
Sakamoto struck again in the fourth with a two-run double that put the home team ahead 3-0.
The Tigers pulled a run back on an Ikuro Katsuragi sacrifice fly in the fifth, but Suzuki’s homer in the bottom half pushed the lead to 4-1.
Tigers first baseman Kentaro Sekimoto trimmed the lead to two with an RBI single up the middle in the sixth. Hanshin pulled within a run on an RBI single by Lin Wei-chu later in the inning.
Ogasawara’s two-run shot in the seventh made the score 6-3, giving the Giants a little breathing room.
“I didn’t do anything during the first half of tonight’s game,” Ogasawara said. “So I really wanted to do something in that last at-bat.”
Hanshin third baseman Makoto Imaoka sent the first pitch of the eighth sailing over the right-field wall to again trim the Yomiuri lead to two.
Carp crush Dragons
HIROSHIMA (Kyodo) Kenta Kurihara and Scott Seabol hit key homers to help the Hiroshima Carp beat the Chunichi Dragons 7-1 on Friday.
Swallows 6, BayStars 2 (5)
At Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium, Yakult broke a 2-2 tie on a two-run error by Yokohama right fielder Yuki Yoshimura in the fourth and wound up as the winner after rain forced the game to be called after five innings.
Marines 1, Eagles 1 (5)
At Chiba Marine Stadium, Tasuku Hashimoto drew a bases-loaded walk to force in the tying run in the bottom of the fifth.