A little over a month ago, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters were an afterthought in the Pacific League.
They’ve got everybody’s attention now.
Masaru Takeda continued his mastery of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, and Yoshio Itoi, Hichori Morimoto and Atsunori Inaba homered as Nippon Ham routed Softbank 7-0 on Thursday night at Tokyo Dome.
The fourth-place Fighters have been Japanese baseball’s best team since ending interleague competition on June 16. The Fighters are 15-3 since then and now just 1 1/2 games behind the third-place Hawks in the standings.
Takeda had one of his best outings of the year, throwing eight scoreless innings while allowing eight hits and striking out five.
“I was fortunate to get the support from our offense,” Takeda said. “I was trying my best for Shinji, who is hospitalized,” he added, referring to first baseman Shinji Takahashi, who was hit in the head during Wednesday’s game against the Hawks.
Takeda threw the first shutout of his career against Softbank on June 22, and a pitch count of 115 is likely all that prevented him from going for a second.
“He was pitching on five days’ rest,” Fighters manager Masataka Nashida said. “It doesn’t matter if you have a complete game or a shutout, but it is important not to be fatigued going into the next outing.”
The Fighters lefty has been at his best against the Hawks this year, improving to 3-0 with a 0.32 ERA against the Kyushu club.
“I was able to pitch well the last time out,” Takeda said. “So I’m satisfied with how it ended this time.”
It didn’t hurt that he got a lot of help from the Fighters at the plate.
Itoi hit a two-run home run in the first inning and Morimoto and Inaba cracked back-to-back shots in the fifth. Eiichi Koyano also drove in a run for Nippon Ham.
Morimoto’s blast to center came with runners on the corners and was his first since June 6 and second of the season.
“I was looking for a fastball that I could hit for a sacrifice fly,” Morimoto said. “That was a feeling I hadn’t had in a long time.”
Fukuoka starter J.D. Durbin (0-2) took the loss, allowing six runs on six hits.
Hawks shortstop Munenori Kawasaki led the way for his team at the plate with a 2-for-4 night.
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.
Swallows top Tigers
NISHINOMIYA , Hyogo Pref. (Kyodo) Kazuhiro Hatakeyama hit his first career grand slam, keying a seven-run uprising in the fourth inning as the Tokyo Yakult Swallows beat the Hanshin Tigers 10-6 on Thursday night.
Mikinori Kato (1-0) threw three-run ball over five innings in front of a crowd of 34,942 at Koshien Stadium and Yakult came from behind to snap a three-game losing streak. The lefty won his first decision in his third year in the pros.
BayStars 6, Dragons 3
At Yokohama Stadium, Shuichi Murata homered twice and drove in four runs, helping power Yokohama past Chunichi to end a five-game losing skid.
Buffaloes 6, Lions 0
At Osaka’s Kyocera Dome, Chihiro Kaneko pitched his second consecutive shutout as Orix avoided being swept by Saitama Seibu.
Kaneko (6-7) allowed just three hits and struck out six. Aarom Baldiris hit a solo homer in the fourth off Masamitsu Hirano (0-1) and capped a three-run seventh with a sacrifice fly.
Eagles 5, Marines 4
At Sendai’s Kleenex Stadium, Todd Linden hit a go-ahead two-run homer in the eighth inning as Tohoku Rakuten rallied from a 4-0 deficit to beat Chiba Lotte.