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Giants edge Fighters in dramatic opener

by Jason Coskrey

SAPPORO — The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters had the tying run at second, the winning run at first and visions of another walk-off win in the playoffs dancing in their heads.

Except that closer Marc Kroon and the Yomiuri Giants said sayonara to those plans.

Yoshitomo Tani collected three hits, Hayato Sakamoto hit a go-ahead double in the fifth, and Kroon wriggled out of an dangerous situation in the ninth to help the Giants win Game 1 of the Japan Series 4-3 in front of 40,650 fans on Saturday night at Sapporo Dome.

“The most important thing is that we were able to hold them at the end,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said. “Overall we were able to play with our normal team rhythm.”

The win gives Yomiuri a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

The Fighters were looking for their second dramatic victory of the postseason after Shinji Takahashi hit an RBI-double off the center-field wall in the ninth that made the score 4-3.

The Fighters won the first game of the Pacific League Climax Series after rallying from a four-run deficit to beat the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in an earlier round of the playoffs.

Slugger Terrmel Sledge followed Takahashi with a walk to put the potential winning run at first with two outs.

But Kroon weaseled his way out and got Eiichi Koyano to look at a forkball that was called for strike three to end the game.

Tani was the star of the night, going 3-for-4 with a home run. Captain Shinnosuke Abe chipped in with a pair of singles and Michihiro Ogasawara was 1-for-4 against his former team.

“This was a good game,” said Tani, who drove in the first run of the game with a second-inning homer. “I’m proud to have hit the home run that started the scoring and helped set the pace.”

The game was tied at 1-1 until Sakamoto caught up to a changeup from Masaru Takeda in the fifth, resulting in a two-run double that gave Yomiuri a 3-1 lead.

“I was caught off balance a bit,” Sakamoto said. “But I was looking for a breaking ball, so I could scoop it up nicely.”

Sledge kept up his torrid pace at the plate with a 2-for-4 night that included a solo home run in the second. Sledge has three homers and 11 RBIs in five playoff games this season.

Nippon Ham infielder Tomohiro Nioka, the Japan Series MVP for the Giants in 2002, also drove in a run in the losing effort.

Giants starter Dicky Gonzalez was charged with two runs on nine hits over 5 1/3 innings and picked up the victory.

“I’m just so happy,” Gonzalez said. “I love to go out there against a strong team and I thank Hara for the opportunity.

“I tried to keep myself calm between innings. I tried to relax and keep my mind focused. Hara told me in the third inning that I had to stay back and I relaxed a little bit after that.”

He left the game in the sixth with runners on first and second and one out, thrusting reliever Tetsuya Yamaguchi into a sticky situation. Yamaguchi gave up a run before striking out Makoto Kaneko and retiring Kensuke Tanaka to get out of the inning with Yomiuri leading 3-2.

Takeda was decent through six innings but took the loss after allowing three runs on five hits.

Tani’s homer in the second put Yomiuri ahead 1-0 but Sledge answered with a game-tying solo drive in the bottom half.

Sakamoto’s double in the fifth broke the deadlock, putting the Giants ahead by two runs.

Nippon Ham put runners on first and second with one out and cut the lead to one on Nioka’s pinch-hit RBI single to left.

“It was a chance for us,” Nioka said. “So I wanted to drive in a least one run.”

Yomiuri put runners on the corners in the seventh and was rewarded after Lee Seung Yeop drove in an insurance run to make the score 4-2.