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Dragons tame Tigers when it really counts

by Jason Coskrey

OSAKA — Almost one week ago the Hanshin Tigers cruised by the Chunichi Dragons in a meaningless contest.

The game meant a lot more on Saturday night, only it was Chunichi ace Kenshin Kawakami making things look easy.

Kawakami pitched seven innings of shutout ball, Tyrone Woods and Masahiko Morino provided the offense, and the Dragons defeated the Tigers 2-0 in Game 1 of the first stage of the Central League Climax Series in front of a crowd of 33,824 at Kyocera Dome.

“I felt really good after I got a run in the first inning,” Kawakami said. “It’s always a good feeling to take the mound in the bottom of the first as the visiting team, already having the lead, especially against a team like the Tigers.

“I thought before the game, if I could get even one run, that might be enough.”

The Chunichi starter allowed four hits and struck out six to give the Dragons a 1-0 lead in the series. Chunichi can clinch a spot in the second stage of the CLCS against the Yomiuri Giants at Tokyo Dome with a win in Game 2 on Sunday or Game 3 on Monday if the series reaches that point.

“Since we won today, the mood on our team is really upbeat,” Kawakami said. “It makes us feel we can win this series, then go to Tokyo, win there and play in the Japan Series again.”

Kawakami extended his scoreless streak to 18-innings in the win and hasn’t given up a run since returning from Olympic duty on Sept. 24 — a span of two starts and two relief appearances.

“I’m satisfied with what I did today,” Kawakami said. “But out on the mound, I was just doing my best not to give up any runs.”

Woods provided the game’s first score with a single in the opening frame and Morino padded the lead with a homer in the sixth.

“To get a hit and an RBI in my first at-bat is a real confidence booster,” Woods said. “It’s a short series. So whoever gets off to a good start has a good chance of winning the series.”

Hanshin made sure the Dragons had to work for the victory.

With Kawakami’s night over in the eighth, the Tigers pounced on reliever Takuya Asao. Norihiro Akahoshi and Kentaro Sekimoto began the inning with consecutive singles to put runners on first and second with no outs for slugger Takahiro Arai.

But Asao quickly regrouped, getting Arai to flyout in foul territory, forcing Tomoaki Kanemoto to flyout to center — allowing Akahoshi to move to third in the process — and retiring Takashi Toritani to end the threat.

Hanshin brought the tying run to the plate against closer Hitoki Iwase in the ninth with two outs. Their hopes ended when pinch hitter Makoto Imaoka flew out to center.

“Kawakami and Iwase were at their best today, and we got that key hit from Woods in the first inning to put us ahead,” Dragons manager Hiromitsu Ochiai said. “That was big. Then Morino’s home run added to our lead, giving us more confidence we could win.”

Just a few months ago the Tigers had a 13-game lead in the CL standings and were barreling toward the pennant and the automatic berth in the second stage — which included a 1-0 lead and homefield advantage — that came along with it.

Now they find themselves on the brink of elimination, needing two straight victories to advance to a second-stage meeting with CL-champion Giants.

The last week of the season was especially hard as a 2-5-1 October finish helped cost them the pennant and led manager Akinobu Okada to tender his resignation

The Tigers tagged Kawakami for six runs — four earned — in his last start against them on July 25. The Kansai club was left searching for answers this time as the Chunichi hurler buried them under an array of forkballs, sliders and fastballs.

The Dragons needed everything Kawakami gave them, only mustering a pair of runs on five hits against a solid night by the Hanshin pitchers.

Starter Yuya Ando pitched well but didn’t get the support he needed to bounce back after allowing a run in the first inning.

Ando allowed a run on four hits and struck out two in the loss.

Chunichi’s Lee Byung Kyu got things off to a quick start with a leadoff single that was followed by Masahiro Araki’s sacrifice bunt in the first inning. After moving to third on a Morino groundout, Lee was driven in on Woods’ RBI single.

Morino doubled the Dragons’ lead in the sixth with a leadoff homer off reliever Scott Atchison.

The Dragons will attempt to advance to the next round while the Tigers fight to keep their season alive in Game 2 on Sunday at Osaka Dome. The first pitch is scheduled for 6 p.m.