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Dragons’ Koike smacks game-winning blast in 10th

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Masaaki Koike didn’t get all of Takahiro Mahara’s forkball in the 10th inning, but he got enough it. And that’s all the Chunichi Dragons needed.

Dragons starter Chen Wei-yin had one of his best outings of the year, Kazuhiro Wada backed him with a game-tying solo homer in the fourth, and Koike provided the difference in the 10th to give the Dragons a 2-1 win over the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in Game 1 of the Japan Series on Saturday at Yahoo Dome.

“It was a very intense game to watch from the bench,” Dragons manager Hiromitsu Ochiai said. “I knew the players did not want to lose, and I told them to enjoy themselves.”

The win gives the Dragons a 1-0 lead in the series. They put themselves in the driver’s seat by winning without using their top pitcher, Kazuki Yoshimi. Instead, Yoshimi will be pitching to give Chunichi 2-0 series lead if he starts Sunday’s Game 2.

The Dragons can thank Chen for helping to put them in this position.

After an up-and-down year to this point, Chen saved his best for the biggest stage. He survived a shaky start to throw eight innings of one-run ball, allowing four hits and striking out 11. He held the Hawks hitless after giving up an RBI single to Yuya Hasegawa with two outs in the fourth.

“I wasn’t particularly good early in the game, but got gradually better,” Chen said.

“My fastball, in particular, got better. (Catcher Motonobu) Tanishige-san helped me a lot as well. I was focusing on every single pitch, every single batter I faced. Even if I allowed a hit, I was able to retire the next batter.”

Chen didn’t factor into the decision.

“Both pitchers were throwing well and deserved to win,” Kazuhiro Wada said, referring to Chen and Hawks starter Tsuyoshi Wada. “We really wanted to win it for Chen. It’s too bad he could not get the victory.”

For awhile it looked like he would get the loss. Softbank’s Wada was on top his game as well, taking a 1-0 lead and a no-hitter into the seventh. In that frame, however, he gave up a tying homer to the Dragons’ Wada that let Chen off the hook.

The Hawks left-hander, who also didn’t get a decision, allowed one run on two hits and struck out eight over eight innings.

“They haven’t changed since the interleague season, so I don’t have any special impression of them,” Wada said of the Chunichi offense. “Chen was good as well, so I expected it would be a one-run game.”

Dragons reliever Takuya Asao worked the ninth then recorded the first two outs of the 10th earn the win. Hitoki Iwase struck out Munenori Kawasaki for the final out and the save.

“This was a season for the pitcher, and we played our game today with great pitching from the starters to the relievers,” Ochiai said.

Mahara was charged with the loss after allowing Koike’s blast in the 10th.

“It was a 2-1 count, right?” Hawks manager Koji Akiyama asked after the game. “I don’t think he (Mahara) was loose though. But we don’t make any excuses.

“We predicted the game would be like this since their pitchers are also good.”

Softbank, Japan’ second highest scoring offense during the regular season, had an off day at the plate. The Hawks were held to just four singles, none coming after the fourth. They scored their only run in the fourth, when Hasegawa stepped to the plate with runners on first and second and delivered an RBI single.

“I was thinking of being patient and didn’t mind if I was walked,” Hasegawa said. “The ball went in a good direction.”

The lead held up until Chunichi’s Wada tied the score with his home run to left.

“I only tried to swing the bat hard,” the veteran slugger said.

Three innings later, Koike put his team on top with his go-ahead blast.

“I hit a forkball,” Koike said. “On a previous at-bat, I swung and missed on that pitch. It came in low, and I was able to lift it.”