SAPPORO — Yu Darvish and Tsuyoshi Shinjo had Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters fans worked up into a frenzy before the second game of the Japan Series had even started.
There was a whole lot more to cheer about once things really got going.
Darvish made his long-awaited return to the mound and Atsunori Inaba did the honors with a home run that ignited a four-run third inning as the Fighters beat the Yomiuri Giants 4-2 in Game 2 of the Japanese Fall Classic in front of 40,718 rabid fans on Sunday at Sapporo Dome.
“I had a lot of anxiety,” Darvish said. “But when my name was called (during the announcement of the starters) I heard a lot of cheering. After that, I felt like I could go today.”
Nippon Ham’s win ties the series 1-1, and Game 3 is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Tuesday at Tokyo Dome.
Darvish, who had been battling a sore back and shoulder fatigue for weeks, was a little rusty but effective in picking up the win in his first start in 42 days.
“I really wanted to pitch this game,” Darvish said. “I am satisfied I was able to give my team the chance to win.”
Darvish was doubtful for the series, after his injuries kept him from pitching for more than a month. But his condition improved enough for Nashida to send him to the mound.
“Even I wasn’t sure if today’s starter would be Darvish or Brian Sweeney,” Fighters manager Masataka Nashida said. “But Darvish kept telling me, ‘I want to pitch,’ so I gave him the ball. He pitched wonderfully today.”
The Fighters ace got little resistance from Hayato Sakamoto at the top of the Yomiuri order and retired the next batter, Tetsuya Matsumoto, with equal ease.
Darvish recorded his first strikeout with a curveball to Michihiro Ogasawara to retire the side in order and squash any doubts about his condition.
Darvish threw 87 pitches over six innings, allowed a pair of runs and struck out seven. He gave up seven hits and walked none.
“I was pitching for my family, fans and teammates,” Darvish said. “Also for the other five Pacific League clubs.”
The crowd was fired up from the start after Darvish was announced as the starter before the game. The roar only got louder when former Nippon Ham star Shinjo made his appearance.
With his unnaturally white teeth gleaming, hair teased and dark sunglasses perched on his face, the heavily tanned former outfield maestro looked more like a movie star than a baseball player.
But the fans who adored him during the last three years of his career turned up the volume while he assisted with the first pitch ceremony. Shinjo then embraced Darvish, whispering a few words to him, on his way off the field.
The Nippon Ham offense seemed to feed off the electric atmosphere and broke through in the third on Inaba’s solo homer to right.
“Nothing was happening in the game,” Inaba said. “I came up with two outs and nobody on base, so I was thinking full swing and managed to hit one over the fence.”
That opened the floodgates against starter Tetsuya Utsumi, who gave up a double, an RBI single, another single and a two-run double to the next batters in the order as the Fighters raced to a 4-0 lead.
Inaba finished 2-for-4 and is batting .333 in the series. Yoshio Itoi drove in a pair of runs on a 3-for-4 night, and Terrmel Sledge was 1-for-3 with an RBI.
Utsumi, lasted just 2 2/3 innings and gave up four runs on eight hits with three strikeouts.
“I wasn’t in bad shape,” Utsumi said. “But I couldn’t locate the way I wanted. I couldn’t pitch to the spots I wanted, but at the same time I’ll give the credit to the Fighters’ batters.”
The Giants trailed 4-0 in the fourth when Alex Ramirez connected on a two-out single, his second hit of the night off Darvish. Yoshiyuki Kamei followed with a two-run homer off the foul pole in left that cut the Nippon Ham lead in half.