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Tanaka carries Eagles in Game 3

by Kaz Nagatsuka

SAPPORO — Masahiro “Ma-kun” Tanaka gained his fame as a phenomenal high school hurler on this northern island.

The Golden Eagles right-hander exhibited his unbridled talent in front of 42,328 spectators in Hokkaido once again.

The 20-year-old Tanaka ended the possibility of a series sweep by tossing a solid complete game in Tohoku Rakuten’s 3-2 victory over the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in Game 3 of the Pacific League Climax Series second stage on Friday night.

The Fighters now hold a 3-1 series lead. Game 4 is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Saturday.

“Ma-kun did a good job,” Rakuten manager Katsuya Nomura said after the game. “I don’t know whether (the win) was big or not. But certainly if we had lost today, we would’ve finished the season.”

One of the heroes in Game 2, Shinji Takahashi, smacked Tanaka’s first pitch into the right-field bleachers to give Nippon Ham a 1-0 lead in the second inning.

But the Eagles finally made a strong comeback. In the fourth, Naoto Watanabe hit a solo shot to tie it and the men in crimson red went ahead on RBI singles by Toshiya Nakashima and Daisuke Kusano off Fighters starter Tomoya Yagi.

“It was a high inside fastball,” Nakashima said of the money pitch. “We couldn’t afford to lose any more and I tried to hit by any means.”

Tanaka, who played in Hokkaido during his high school days, gained composure and got better as the innings wore on.

One of the highlights of the game came in the bottom of the eighth inning. The Fighters scored one run back on a Hichori Morimoto sacrifice fly, and there were still runners on the corners.

But Tanaka exerted all his strength and struck out cleanup hitter Takahashi to get out of the jam.

Tanaka was sent to the hill in the final inning and ended the game with a 1-2-3 ninth.

“I put all of my energy (into it),” he said of the eighth inning.

Asked if he felt pressure as his team entered the game on the verge of elimination from the playoffs, Tanaka replied: “Yeah, I was pitching in an atmosphere that you could end your season if you lose. So I wasn’t at ease in the first couple of innings.”

Tanaka (1-0) tossed 126 pitches, giving up six hits. He struck out six and walked one, while Yagi (0-1) pitched five innings.

It was Tanaka’s second victory of the postseason.