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Hawks edge closer to Japan Series

by Kaz Nagatsuka

FUKUOKA — It may not have been the most beautiful way of getting a “W.” But winning is all that matters in the postseason, and the Hawks were pleased they did just that.

Fukuoka Softbank scored the game’s only run on erratic plays by the Marines in the first inning and went on to preserve the lead in the Hawks’ 1-0 win over Chiba Lotte in Game 3 of the Pacific League Climax Series final stage on Saturday afternoon.

With the one-win advantage, the Hawks are now up 3-1 in the series, one victory away from clinching their first Japan Series berth in seven years.

D.J. Houlton pitched 5 2/3 solid innings, allowing three hits, two walks and no runs, and three Hawks relievers followed him with no-run outings in front of 36,664 fans at Yahoo Dome.

“We had a hard time scoring runs,” Softbank manager Koji Akiyama said. “But we were lucky enough to get a run on the opponent’s mistakes.”

Akiyama gave credit to Houlton, who ended up with an 8-6 record due to an injury in the regular season, for pitching with composure.

“Houlton probably gave his best performance since he hurt his hip joint,” the skipper said, referring to an injury that occurred in May and was re-aggravated in August.

Houlton said that he took advantage of the Marines’ aggressiveness and tried to throw strikes on the corners.

“I knew they were swinging,” the right-handed hurler said. “They’re really aggressive. That’s their strength but I wanted to use it to my advantage.”

Houlton went 3-0 in the count four times. He explained that it was as a result of paying extra attention to his opponents.

“I didn’t want to give them a pitch to hit out of the yard,” said Houlton, who tossed 103 pitches. “I give up a lot of home runs sometimes, so I wanted to be careful, especially with the score being 1-0.”

After Houlton was taken out of the game with two outs in the sixth, relievers Masahiko Morifuku, Tadashi Settsu and Takahiro Mahara lined up zeros on the scoreboard.

The Hawks led off the game without having to do much after the first ball. They scored a run on a wild pitch by Marines starter Bill Murphy, following a walk and an error, in the first inning.

The Hawks had a chance to extend the lead in the third, but let it slip away on a boneheaded play.

They had runners on second and third with one out. But second-base runner Nobuhiko Matsunaka jumped off the bag on a Hitoshi Tamura line drive, which was directly caught by center fielder Ikuhiro Kiyota. Kiyota threw the ball to second for the third out.

Meanwhile, the Marines had a chance to tie and possibly go ahead when they had two runners in scoring position in the seventh. But Tsuyoshi Nishioka grounded out to end the inning.

Fireman Mahara worked in the final inning and fanned the final two batters.

For the second day in a row, the Hawks managed to win without too much help from their offense.

But second baseman Yuichi Honda laughed it off, saying, “It doesn’t matter.”

“We ended up with only a run,” Honda said. “It doesn’t matter as long as we get a win in this short battle.”