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Wakui-led Lions nab spot in Japan Series

by Kaz Nagatsuka

TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. — While the excited Lions fans were giving big cheers, pitcher Hideaki Wakui was uneventfully doing his job.

Wakui excelled on the grand stage of the playoffs and unheralded power hitter Taketoshi Goto had a big night to guide Seibu to a 9-0 victory over the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, and a Japan Series berth, on Wednesday before a crowd of 21,731 at Seibu Dome.

With the triumph in Game 5 of the Pacific League Climax Series, the Lions ended the Fighters’ dream for a third straight Japan Series appearance, while they’re making their first trip to the Japan’s Fall Classic in four years.

“We struggled late in the season, but had a training camp and became as one team having a good tuneup,” Lions manager Hisanobu Watanabe said after the game. “We just played hoping to go to the Japan Series, and that led to this result.”

Wakui, a poker-faced right-hander, displayed composure from the beginning of the game and effectively located his fastballs, curveballs, sliders and changeups on the corners of the plate, making Nippon Ham batters chase his pinpoint pitches.

Wakui, who was 10-11 with a 3.90 ERA in the regular season, had a perfect game for 6 2/3 innings, before injured designated hitter Atsunori Inaba, who was back in the starting lineup for the first time since Game 2 of the PLCS first stage against the Orix Buffaloes, singled with two outs in the seventh.

The 22-year-old Wakui pitched a three-hit shutout and fanned seven. Wakui, who picked up two wins in the series, was selected the second stage’s MVP.

The Lions offense, meanwhile, kept its momentum from the previous game, in which Seibu won 9-4, and gave enough run support to Wakui early on.

In the second, designated hitter Taketoshi Goto nicely smacked Fighters starter Ryan Glynn’s curve into the center-field screen to give the Lions a 1-0 lead.

Goto hit a homer off Glynn in Game 1 in Omiya as well. Glynn lasted only 2 2/3 innings, allowing four hits and five earned runs for his second loss of the series.

Glynn, who allowed 10 earned runs in three innings in Game 1, struggled again, and Seibu continued to pound his pitches for hits.

With two down in the third, Hiroyuki Nakajima drove home Yasuyuki Kataoka, who got on base on a single and stole second base, on an RBI hit.

After adding another on a bases-loaded walk, Goto added two more RBIs on the stats sheet as he drove in a two-run single off reliever Shugo Fujii to make it 5-0.

Fujii pitched decently, barely keeping the Hammies’ hopes alive in the middle of the game. But right-handed reliever Hisashi Takeda gave up an RBI double to Goto in the bottom of the seventh.

The Lions added two more runs on Takumi Kuriyama’s RBI triple in the eighth.

The 28-year-old Goto, a former Yokohama High School player, went 3-for-3 with four RBIs to take the spotlight on offense.

Wakui yielded two hits in the final inning but struck out Inaba to end the game.

Nippon Ham won its first Japan Series title in 44 years in 2006, and made another berth last year but lost to Chunichi in five games.

“Seibu was just great,” Fighters skipper Masataka Nashida said. “Not just today but throughout the series, they were great.

“We’ve been playing thinking we want to stand on the top of the summit, so this is a pity. I wish we could’ve played a little bit longer.”

The PL champion Lions, who grabbed the pennant with a 76-64-4 record (.543), will take on the winner of the Central League Climax Series’ second stage between the first-place Yomiuri Giants and the defending NPB champ Chunichi Dragons in the Japan Series, which begins on Nov. 1 at the CL club’s venue.

“Last fall, when I took the helm, our first goal was to become the best in Japan,” said Watanabe, a first-year manager. “We don’t know which (Chunichi or Yomiuri) team we are facing yet, but we are going to play with confidence.”