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Ace Darvish holds Orix at arm’s length

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OSAKA — Spot Yu Darvish a run and more times than not he’s going to win. Give him a couple more and it’s pretty much academic.

Darvish kept the powerful Orix Buffaloes at bay and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters strung together a couple of timely hits to win Game 1 of the first stage of the Pacific League Climax Series 4-1 on Saturday afternoon at Kyocera Dome.

“With Darvish pitching, there is no way we were going to lose if we scored four runs,” Fighters manager Masataka Nashida said. “I was a little worried about what would happen if we lost this game, but now I am confident we can win this series and move on to Stage 2.”

Terrmel Sledge handed Darvish an early lead with a second-inning home run and the 22-year-old right-hander did the rest to give the Fighters a 1-0 advantage in the best-of-three series.

“Not only my fast ball, but all my pitches were working well today,” Darvish said. “I am thankful for the run support I got from our offense. When I got the lead, I felt more confident.”

Darvish struck out 14 and allowed an unearned run on nine hits in a complete-game effort. With the exception of Hiroyuki Oze, Darvish struck out every Orix batter, including two pinch hitters, at least once.

Dating back to last season’s Japan Series, the Fighters ace has struck out at least 11 in each of his last three postseason starts.

Darvish passed former Seibu Lions hurler Daisuke Matsuzaka with his fourth career Climax Series victory and also passed Matsuzaka on the career Climax Series strikeout list.

Despite Darvish’s dominance, the Buffaloes did not go quietly.

Trailing 4-0, Tomotaka Sakaguchi led off the eighth with a single then advanced to second on an error. He then went to third on a wild pitch before Shinji Shimoyama walked to put runners on first and third with no outs. The next batter, Alex Cabrera, drove in Sakaguchi with a sacrifice fly.

The brief threat was soon ended as Darvish forced Tuffy Rhodes into an inning-ending 4-6-3 double-play.

The win leaves the Fighters one victory away from their third consecutive trip to the second stage of the Pa League Climax Series. Nippon Ham advanced to the Japan Series in their two previous trips.

“We have to go game by game,” Sledge said. “We don’t want to go to a third game. So we’re going to try to get it over with.”

Sledge was 2-for-4 with a home run in his postseason debut for the Fighters and was the only Nippon Ham player with multiple hits.

Oze led the way for the Buffaloes with a 3-for-3 night while Cabrera was 2-for-3 with an RBI in the loss.

Orix starter Kazuki Kondo gave up Sledge’s homer but held the Fighters in check before yielding three runs in the sixth. Kondo lasted 5 1/3 innings, allowing four runs on five hits and striking out one.

With his club clinging to a one-run lead, Nippon Ham’s Hichori Morimoto led off the sixth with a walk and later scored on Shinji Takahashi’s RBI single to right to put the Fighters ahead 2-0. Eiichi Koyano followed with an RBI double past third baseman Hirotoshi Kitagawa.

The Fighters added another run on a sacrifice fly by catcher Shinya Tsuruoka to take a 4-0 lead.

“We only had five hits and two walks or something, so the three runs (in the sixth) were pretty effective,” Nashida said.

Nippon Ham will send Shugo Fujii (3-8 during the regular season) to the mound in Game 2 in hopes of closing out the series today.

“I’m relieved that I was able to set a good tone for Fujii who is starting Game 2,” Darvish said.

The Buffaloes will counter with Satoshi Komatsu (15-3), who was their best pitcher during the regular season.

“He hasn’t pitched against us for a while,” Nashida said referring to Komatsu. “They’ve come with guys like (Chihiro) Kaneko and (Shogo) Yamamoto lately. If he is in a good shape, he’ll give us hard time. So we want to make him throw as many pitches as possible and watch his pitches well.”