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Lions bare teeth to claim Japan Series

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Seibu Lions manager Hisanobu Watanabe had a book due out on Monday.

If it’s half as good as the story he authored in his first season as the Lions’ skipper he’ll have a best-seller on his hands.

Watanabe’s Lions capped a virtual wire-to-wire run with a Japan Series title after Sunday night’s victory over the Yomiuri Giants in Game 7 at Tokyo Dome.

Brilliant relief pitching and a timely eighth-inning RBI single by Hiroshi Hirao in the finale helped the Lions overcome a 3-2 deficit in the best-of-seven series to win the franchise’s 13th Japan Series title.

“I think the reason we were able to come this far is our dislike for losing,” Watanabe said. “We played with the attitude that winning is so much better.”

Needing a win and trailing 2-1 in the eighth, Seibu caught a break when Giants reliever Daisuke Ochi hit Yasuyuki Kataoka with a pitch to lead off the inning.

Kataoka stole second then advanced to third on Takumi Kuriyama’s sacrifice bunt to leave the tying run 90 feet from home plate with one out. Kataoka came home on Hiroyuki Nakajima’s weak grounder to tie the score at 2-2.

Ochi walked the next two batters to bring up Hirao with two away. The Lions first baseman came through with a single to center deep enough to score Takeya Nakamura from second to give Seibu the lead.

Closer Alex Graman worked the eighth and ninth for a two-inning save, retiring all six batters he faced to preserve the one-run victory.

“Unbelievable, I don’t know what to say right now,” Graman said. “It was just an unbelievable experience to be out there for two innings. After we scored that one run, I just knew I didn’t want to blow it.”

Graman began the ninth with a one-run lead and two of the CL’s top home run hitters, Michihiro Ogasawara and Alex Ramirez, due up in the final frame.

“I just wanted to keep the ball down, make my pitches and be confident,” Graman said. “If you’re going to get beat, get beat challenging guys to hit home runs. I don’t want to be sitting there second guessing myself.

“I made the right pitches, good pitches, and got outs.”

Veteran pitcher Fumiya Nishiguchi got the start but fell behind 2-0 after allowing a pair of quick runs over two innings. Watanabe turned to the bullpen from there, bringing in Kazuhisa Ishii, Hideaki Wakui, Tomoki Hoshino and Graman, who combined for seven scoreless innings of relief.

The Lions showed veterans’ poise after losing Game 5 and needing to win two games on the road to clinch the championship. Hirao had a starring role in Game 6 as well, going 3-for-4 with a homer and four RBIs to help force a seventh game.

Japan Series MVP Takayuki Kishi played a huge role in the sixth game as well, tossing 5 2/3 scoreless innings on short rest to silence the mighty Yomiuri lineup after starter Kazuyuki Hoashi ran into trouble early.

“Kishi came to me in the locker room and apologized for winning the MVP,” Hirao said. “But I told him, ‘If you didn’t hold them, we wouldn’t have won.’ ”

The Lions were dominant early in the season, building a huge lead in the Pacific League on the strength of Japanese baseball’s most potent offense.

They faltered late, but still found a way to clinch their first league title in four seasons and a bye into the second round of the PL CLimax Series.

Seibu dispatched the defending PLCS champion Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the Climax Series to earn the right to face the Giants for the sport’s biggest prize.

After falling behind in the series 2-1 Kishi delivered a dazzling Japan Series debut with 10 strikeouts in a complete-game shutout to even the Series.

The Giants roughed up Game 1 winner Wakui in Game 5 but the Central League’s top lineup couldn’t muster enough offense to capture the title in the series’ final two games.

“We were able to come from behind 3-2 in the series to win the last two,” Watanabe said. “This victory belongs to all the Lions fans throughout Japan.

“I would like to thank my players for all their hard work during the season.”

The title ends Seibu’s two-series losing streak against Yomiuri in the Japanese Fall Classic.

“The Giants are a great team and (Tatsunori) Hara-kantoku is to be congratulated,” Watanabe said. “This was a great series with close, exciting games and it went the full seven. I’m just happy we came out on top.”

It was a humbling end for the Giants, who erased a 13-game deficit late in the regular season to pass the Hanshin Tigers and win the Central League title.

The Giants faced little resistance in dispatching the Chunichi Dragons in the CL Climax Series, winning that series 4-1 with the help of the automatic 1-0 advantage awarded to the league champion, but met their match in a young Lions squad.

“It’s very painful that we lost,” Hara said. “I don’t know yet how this Giants team will be but we have left some issues to solve next season.

“During the course of the long season, my players fought and won many games, though we lost the last one. I would say this was a significant season for my team.”