/

Lotte’s Nishioka proves value to club in playoff opener

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Tokorozawa Saitama Pref. Tsuyoshi Nishioka was the stabilizer for the Chiba Lotte Marines during the regular season. That’s an indisputable fact.

And now that the postseason has begun, the Marines expect more of the same.

On Saturday, the shortstop ignited the offense, which had a stunning rally in the ninth inning in Game 1 of the Pacific League Climax Series first stage.

In the eighth, Nishioka bashed a fastball offering from Seibu Lions ace Hideaki Wakui, who had allowed just three hits before that, on a 3-1 pitch for a two-out home run.

“Wakui kept pitching low throughout the game,” said Nishioka, who hit a league-leading .346 with 11 homers and 59 RBIs this season, after Lotte’s 6-5 triumph in 11 innings. “I was completely held by him in the previous three at-bats.”

The Marines were trailing 1-0 at the moment. But Nishioka, the team’s leadoff man, confessed that he was looking to go yard in that situation.

“We were down by one, and it was two outs. So I was aiming for a home run,” Nishioka said. “I rarely try to hit a home run, but I thought that the momentum would come to us if I could come up with one there.

“Unless I try to do it, I wouldn’t have been able to hit that big.”

Despite the fact that Chiba Lotte, the lowest seed in the PLCS, now leads 1-0 in the best-of-three series, Nishioka maintained a serious tone after the game.

The team had a chance to take the lead in the ninth, but ended up putting four runs on the board to tie the score. The rally ended when Yoshifumi Okada was tagged out at home after misjudging Nishioka’s sacrifice line drive.

“Mistakes like that could cost you a game in a short series,” Nishioka reflected.

Nishioka, who hit .467 in September to earn his first batting title, came up with one home run in five at-bats in the series opener.

But Nishioka’s leadership, which he started to exhibit this season, seems to be an effective tool to help the Marines develop stronger team unity.