NAGOYA – The Japan Series has gone from a best-of-seven to a best-of-three.
Hiroki Kokubo’s RBI single in the first inning and reliever Masahiko Morifuku’s Herculean effort in the sixth helped the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks hold off the Chunichi Dragons for a 2-1 victory in Game 4 of the Japan Series on Wednesday at Nagoya Dome.
“This was a really tough game,” Hawks manager Koji Akiyama said. “We had just enough to get by and hang on for the win.”
Softbank’s win evens the series at 2-2 and means the teams will play a sixth game on Saturday in Fukuoka. The silver lining for Chunichi is that the road team has wonevery game thus far.
“We lost again tonight, but the series is still tied at two games apiece,” Dragons manager Hiromitsu Ochiai said. “We’ll be OK and will try to get the last two wins needed for the championship.
Hawks starter D.J. Houlton began the sixth with a 2-1 lead, but gave up a single to Masahiko Morino and a double to Tony Blanco before walking Kazuhiro Wada to load the bases with none out.
The left-handed Morifuku was brought in to pitch and Ochiai sent in righty Masaaki Koike to pinch hit for the left-handed hitting Kei Nomoto. The move put three consecutive right-handed hitters in Morifuku’s path.
“I knew it was a tight jam, but I had the confidence I could get us out of it,” Morifuku said. “I followed (catcher Toru) Hosokawa’s lead and just threw the pitches he called. I felt a lot better after getting the first out on a strikeout.”
Morifuku responded to the challenge by striking out Koike. He gave up a flyball to shallow left against the next batter, Ryosuke Hirata, but Seiichi Uchikawa made the catch after a long run to hold the runners. Morifuku then retired Motonobu Tanishige to end the threat.
“I had a lot of confidence in Morifuku, that he could get us out of the bases-load, no-out situation,” Akiyama said. “He was brilliant.”
The Hawks lefty remained in the game and threw a scoreless seventh.
Houlton, working on 28 days’ rest after not pitching in the Climax Series, earned the win in his first Japan Series appearance. He threw five-plus innings, allowing one run on five hits. Houlton walked five, possibly a byproduct of the long layoff, and struck out two.
Dragons starter Yudai Kawai was charged with the loss after allowing two runs — one earned — on five hits.
He found himself in trouble early on, giving up a hit to Munenori Kawasaki to start the game. Kawasaki went to third on a one-out hit by Uchikawa. Kokubo followed with an RBI single to give the Hawks a 1-0 lead.
“We wanted to take advantage of the momentum from yesterday and get on the board first,” Kokubo said. “I’m happy we were able to turn our first chance into a run.”
A ground ball hit by Nobuhiro Matsuda should’ve ended the inning, but shortstop Masahiro Araki threw the ball away trying to complete the double play, which allowed another run to score.
Hirata singled to lead off the fifth and advanced on Tanishige’s sacrifice bunt. Pinch hitter Takahiro Saeki drew a walk to put runners on first and second.
Araki atoned for his earlier mistake with an RBI single to make the score 2-1. Hirokazu Ibata worked the count to 3-2 before striking out looking as Hosokawa threw out Hirata, who was running on the play, at third to end the threat.
“I stepped to the plate thinking of setting the table for the following batters,” Araki said. “We ended up scoring one run as a result, so I was relieved.”
Game 5 is schedule for Thursday in Nagoya.