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Wakui rules mound for first-place Lions

by Kaz Nagatsuka

TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. — Hideaki Wakui isn’t perfect.

In half of the eight games he has won, the right-hander has let his opponents score first. He missed a no-hitter with three outs remaining last month.

Still, he deserves to be the ace hurler for the Seibu Lions, because his gutsy performances as games wear on gives the team a chance to win in the end.

Wakui earned his eighth win, tying him for the second most in the Pacific League, with a 2-1 victory over the Hanshin Tigers in interleague play on Wednesday, and he got it in typical fashion.

Wakui, 23, gave up a run in the first inning but allowed only two more hits to silence the Central League club, capitalizing on his biting breaking balls and fine-quality fastball, the rest of way.

“I didn’t feel any good in the bullpen (before the game) and ended up giving up the run in the first inning,” said Wakui, who also fanned 10 batters for his fourth double-digit strikeout game of the season.

“But I tried to go patiently. And then, my body got sharper as the game went on and I was able to pitch as I wanted. At the same time, I got more focused. I didn’t really think I would allow hits.”

Wakui also yielded runs early on in his previous two starts. But both times he didn’t crumble and gave doggedly overwhelming performances.

Wakui struggled early in the season as well, while teammates Takayuki Kishi and lefty Kazuyuki Hoashi were giving phenomenal performances.

Though the Opening Day starter got off to a 2-0 start in March, Wakui picked up just one win in April.

The 2009 Sawamura Award winner, however, finally began to click in May. He no-hit the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks for eight innings on May 7 and has been 5-1 since then.

He could be named the interleague MVP, with four wins against the Central League, should Seibu finish atop the standings.

What opens up people’s eyes about this man is his inexhaustible stamina. He is second in the league in innings pitched (100), averaging 7.69 innings per game. Wakui led the NPB with 211 1/3 innings pitched last season.

Out of 13 outings, he has had eight 130-or-more-pitch games (two of them for over 150 pitches).

With the game tied at 1 in the eighth inning of Wednesday’s game against Hanshin, Lions manager Hisanobu Watanabe told Wakui he would take him off the mound if the Lions offense managed to score a go-ahead run.

But Wakui, a sixth-year pro, gently defied his skipper, saying that he wanted to go further no matter what.

“I was like, ‘Really?’ ” said Wakui, who pitched 149 pitches for his third complete game of the year. “Because I didn’t feel like I had thrown enough.”

Asked if he could’ve stayed on the hill into extra innings, the poker-faced Wakui responded by saying, “I could’ve gone. There wasn’t a problem.”

Wakui allowed runners to reach first and second with two outs in the top of the ninth. But he got out of the jam by tossing his game-max 147-kph fastballs to coax Takahiro Arai into a groundout.

In the bottom half, his Lions teammate Yasuyuki Kataoka ended the night with a game-winning RBI hit.

“No other lineup would’ve been able to hit against today’s Wakui,” Seibu pitching coach Tetsuya Shiozaki said with a grin.