CHIBA — Yoshio Itoi and Tomohiro Nioka both played for Kinki University but never together on the same team.
No matter, now that they’re finally teammates the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pair is making up for lost time.
Itoi and Nioka hit back-to-back homers to help the Fighters race out to a four-run lead before the Pacific League leaders fended off a late rally to secure a 5-4 victory over the Marines on Saturday at Chiba Marine Stadium.
Itoi hit a two-run homer and drove in three runs, and Nioka had a solo shot and an RBI single as the pair accounted for all five of the Fighters’ runs.
“Itoi was swinging the bat well,” Nioka said. “That’s why I was able to bat so well behind him.”
Despite the pair’s best efforts, however, the win didn’t come easy.
Trailing by two runs in the eighth, pinch hitter Gary Burnham Jr. gave the home fans a ray of hope with a solo homer that cut the Fighters’ lead in half.
The Nippon Ham bullpen responded to the threat by retiring the next four Marines in order, getting the ball to closer Hisahsi Takeda with a one-run lead.
Takeda shut the door with a scoreless ninth to earn his league-leading 13th save of the season.
“It’s tough playing here,” Fighters first baseman Terrmel Sledge said. “Especially with the crowd, one of the toughest in Japan. We hope to come back and finish it off tomorrow and get the sweep.”
Fighters starter Tomoya Yagi won his sixth straight decision to improve to 6-0 despite giving up three runs. Yagi lasted six innings and allowed three hits and struck out four.
“He’s been doing it all year,” Sledge said of Yagi. “He’s been steady for us since he got called up. He gives us a chance to win and that’s what we did today.”
Young Marines hurler Yuki Karakawa suffered from control problems early and was charged with five earned runs as he dropped his second straight decision.
“It’s been awhile since he pitched and his control wasn’t what it has been for us,” Marines manager Bobby Valentine said. “He was up in the zone too much today. I’ve never seen him really do that before.”
The victory keeps the Fighters one game ahead of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in the PL standings, though they insist it’s too early to start watching the standings.
“We go game by game,” Sledge said. “But our main goal is to win the league. It makes it a lot easier for us in the playoffs.”
Nioka got the Fighters on the board early with an RBI double to right in the second inning.
Nippon Ham catcher Shinji Takahashi led off the fourth with a single and was driven home on Itoi’s two-run homer to make the score 3-0. Nioka followed with a solo drive to right-center to give Nippon Ham a comfortable four-run advantage.
Lotte outfielder Shoitsu Omatsu cut into the lead with a solo shot to right in the bottom half of the fourth to make the score 4-1.
The Fighters knocked Karakawa out of the game early in the fifth, leaving reliever Koji Takagi to inherit a bases-loaded jam with one out. Takagi gave up an RBI single to Itoi that made the score 5-0 before being relieved by Taiki Nakago.
Nakago struck out Nioka for the second out, then retired Shinya Tsuruoka to end the inning.
Koichi Hori got the Marines back into the game with his first homer of the season — also his first in two years — a two-run bomb to straightaway center that cut the lead to two runs.
“I think Hori’s been swinging the bat well,” Valentine said. “He’s been doing a good job for us.”
Burnham Jr. made the score 5-4 with his homer before the Fighters shut the door.
Nippon Ham will go for a sweep of the three-game series when the teams meet on Sunday at 1 p.m. at Chiba Marine Stadium.
Brian Sweeney is scheduled to get the start for the Fighters, while the Marines will counter with Shingo Ono.
Hawks crush Lions
TOKOROZAWA , Saitama Pref. (Kyodo) Hitoshi Tamura and Nobuhiro Matsuda drove in three runs apiece and Hidenori Tanoue chipped in with two RBIs as the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks routed the Saitama Seibu Lions 10-3 on Saturday for their third win in four games.
Eagles 11, Buffaloes 5
At Osaka’s Kyocera Dome, Takeshi Yamasaki had a tiebreaking two-run double in the seventh inning and Akihito Fujii capped the five-run outburst with a three-run drive as Tohoku Rakuten romped past Orix.
Yamasaki doubled in two runs off reliever Ryota Katsuki (1-2) to break a 4-4 tie and pinch hitter Fujii went deep with two outs and runners at the corners to make it 9-4. Yosuke Hiraishi put the game out of reach with his two-run blast in the eighth.
Dragons 5, Carp 3
At Mazda Stadium, Masahiko Morino had a tiebreaking single in the fifth inning and finished with three RBIs as Chunichi beat Hiroshima for its first five-game winning streak this season.
Swallows 6, Giants 1
At Tokyo Dome, Yoshinori Sato pitched one-run ball over eight sharp innings, leading Tokyo Yakult to a victory over Central League-leading Yomiuri.
Using his fastball to perfection, Sato (4-4) allowed just two hits, including a solo homer by Lee Seung Yeop in the fifth, struck out five and walked one.
Sato retired the last 12 batters he faced.
BayStars 5, Tigers 3
At Koshien Stadium, Daisuke Miura threw seven shutout innings and Yokohama staved off a late charge by Hanshin to snap a three-game skid.