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Asia falls to mighty Lions

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The Uni-President Lions kept the Seibu Lions caged for 8 2/3 innings.

But with their backs against the wall, Tomoaki Sato and the Japan Series champions roared loudest in the end.

Sato lined a sayonara double into left-center field with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and Yoshihito Ishii beat the relay throw home as the Seibu Lions won the Asia Series title in dramatic fashion with a 1-0 win on Sunday at Tokyo Dome.

“I think this was a great game,” Seibu manager Hisanobu Watanabe said. “We were finally able to win in the end. But (Uni-President) they are also a great team and fought hard all the way.”

With Seibu down to its final strike, Ishii drew three straight balls to reach first safely. Sato then set a ball into the outfield off reliever Pan Wei-Lun which was collected by center fielder Liu Fu Hao.

“Our pitchers were doing their best,” Sato said. “So we needed to score a run quickly.”

“I faced him before,” Sato said referring to the teams’ first meeting on the second day of the Asia Series. “He got me at that time. But I was able to bring all I had to this at-bat.”

Ishii was waved around third, and the relay was off-target as he slid into home to send the euphoric Lions sprinting onto the field.

Sato was named series MVP after his late-game heroics. Sato received ¥1 million as the MVP recipient. Seibu received ¥50 million as tournament champion and the runnerup Lions took home ¥30 million.

“I think I have to share a little of it with Ishii,” Sato joked.

Seibu became the fourth Japanese team to win the four-year-old event, following the Chiba Lotte Marines in 2005, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in ’06 and the Chunichi Dragons last season.

For a while it looked as if neither team would score.

Uni-President starter Giancarlo Alvarado and Seibu’s Hideaki Wakui were excellent early on, staging a pitcher’s duel for the better part of six innings.

Uni-President ace Pan went pitch-for-pitch with Seibu’s Takayuki Kishi in the teams’ first meeting. The squads got similar performances out of former minor-league journeyman Alvarado and Seibu ace Wakui in the rematch.

Alvarado pitched six innings without allowing a runner past second, giving up four hits and striking out one with no walks.

He pitched 11 scoreless innings in three appearances during the tournament.

Wakui also gave a valiant performance, allowing four hits and striking out 10 in 6 2/3 innings. Wakui backed himself into a few tight situations with three walks but wriggled free to keep Uni-President off the scoreboard.

Neither starter factored into the decision.

The game turned into a battle of bullpens in the sixth, with reliever Tomoki Hoshino taking the ball from Wakui with two outs in the sixth. Koji Onuma relieved Hoshino to start the eighth and worked a scoreless inning before yielding to Shinya Okamoto, who was flawless in the ninth to earn the win.

Uni-President countered with Tseng Yi-Cheng and Pan, who took the loss, with each turning in scoreless frames in the seventh and eighth innings.

Pan cruised through the first two-thirds of the ninth before walking Ishii. He thought he had the inning-ending strikeout on two occasions, twice beginning to head for the dugout, but ultimately gave up the crucial walk.

At 1-1 after two days, Uni-President had an uphill battle just to reach the final after falling 2-1 to Seibu on the second day of the tournament.

Because of the tournament’s tiebreaker rules (defensive runs allowed per nine innings) the Taiwanese team entered Day 3 needing either shutout the SK Wyverns or score at least five runs in a victory over them in their game on Saturday in order to win the tiebreaker and reach the final.

Liu Fu-hao helped spark a 10-4 win with a three-run homer to help both Lions teams win the tiebreaker over the Korean club, as each team finished the preliminary round with 2-1 records.

China’s Tianjin Lions marked the first Asia Series appearances by the winner of a Chinese domestic league, but finished 0-3. China had previously been represented by its national team.

The victory capped an amazing season for Seibu, which bounced back from a fifth-place finish in 2007 by winning the Pacific League, Japan Series and now Asia Series titles.

Youth was definately served this season as the young Lions blew through the Japanese baseball season behind the best offense in the league. They won the Japan Series title largely on the efforts of the 22-year-old Wakui and 24-year-old Japan Series MVP Takayuki Kishi.

But as Sato, a 30-year-old veteran of eight season, noted however, it was a pair of veterans who made the difference in the season finale, referring to himself and Ishii, a 12-year veteran.

“A lot of young players carried us through the season,” Sato said. “But when things got tough they had to call on us veterans,” he joked.