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Eagles sweep Hawks

War horse Yamasaki sets up Fighters showdown

by Jason Coskrey

SENDAI — They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

That’s just fine with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Because the ones Takeshi Yamasaki already knows work just fine.

The 40-year-old Yamasaki gave the Eagles some breathing room with a three-run homer in the fifth inning to support a complete-game effort by starter Masahiro Tanaka as Rakuten won 4-1 to finish off the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in the first stage of the Pacific League Climax Series in front of 21,388 fans at Sendai’s Kleenex Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

“I had said yesterday we would wrap up the series today,” Yamasaki said. “That’s the way we played it and it’s good it happened that way.”

The win gives Rakuten a 2-0 first-stage sweep and sends the Eagles into the second stage of the Climax Series where they’ll meet the regular-season PL champion Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

Yamasaki led the Eagles with 39 homers this year and already has a pair in two playoff games. Yamasaki hit a solo blast in the sixth inning of the Eagles 11-4 victory over the Hawks in the first game of the series Friday night.

“Yesterday was the best day I’ve seen in the five-year history of the Rakuten Eagles,” Yamasaki said. “But today was even better.”

Yamasaki, who drove in four runs in the series, finished 1-for-3 with three RBIs in Game 2. Teppei Tsuchiya and Jin Nakatani chipped in with a pair of hits and Masato Nakamura drove in Rakuten’s other run on a 1-for-3 day.

Tanaka was on top of his game all afternoon, striking out nine while allowing six hits and walking none. He gave up an unearned run in the eighth on an error by third baseman Daisuke Kusano that allowed a run to score.

“I had good command of all my pitches today and my control was good,” Tanaka said. “So I think this was one of my better games.”

Tsuchiya led off the fourth with a single and later advanced to third on a one-out hit by Yamasaki after manager Katsuya Nomura dialed up a hit-and-run. Kusano popped up to the shortstop to record out two but Nakamura followed with a run-scoring single to put Rakuten ahead 1-0.

Ryo Hijirisawa and Tsuchiya each drew walks in the fifth, setting the table for Yamasaki, who hit his timely home run with two outs to give Rakuten a 4-0 lead.

“I must admit I was trying to hit a home run in that situation,” Yamasaki said. “I knew with the way ‘Ma-Kun’ was pitching, a three-run home run would probably put away the game for us.”

Afterward Tanaka was appreciative of the helping hand.

“Yamasaki’s home run was huge,” Tanaka said. “Working with a four-run lead is a lot different then a 1-0 lead. My confidence level went way up after the home run.”

Hawks starter D.J. Houlton had kept his team in contention until that point, but his bid to extend the season fell short. Houlton lasted five innings, yielding four runs on six hits and striking out two.

The second stage of the Climax Series is scheduled to begin on Oct. 21 in Sapporo. The Fighters will begin with an automatic one-game advantage.

“We’re looking forward to going to Sapporo and bringing the Japan Series to Sendai,” Yamasaki said. “So I’ll ask our fans to wait awhile and we’ll be back.”

Yakult takes Game 1

NAGOYA (Kyodo) Jamie D’Antona hit a two-run go-ahead homer Saturday as the Yakult Swallows rallied 3-2 over the Chunichi Dragons to take Game 1 in the best-of-three Central League Climax Series.