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Bullpens are invaluable part of game in low-scoring series

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

When all is said and done, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and Chunichi Dragons may look back at the sixth inning of Game 4 as the turning point in the Japan Series.

At the time, the Hawks led the game 2-1, but trailed two-games-to-one in the series. The Dragons were on the move, however, and the lead was in peril as Chunichi loaded the bases against starter D. J. Houlton with no outs.

That spelled the end of Houlton’s night and brought out of the dugout Masahiko Morifuku, a 171-cm, 65-kg, left-hander from nearby Toyokawa, Aichi Prefecture, a medium-sized town about 56 km to the southeast, not far from Mikawa Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

The rest, as they say, is history. Morifuku retired three straight right-handed batters to escape the jam, and the Hawks went on to tie the series with a 2-1 win.

“He’s young but showed the patience and poise of a veteran,” Hawks captain Hiroki Kokubo said afterward.

If that indeed becomes the defining sequence of the series it would be fitting, since relievers have left their imprint all over the Japanese Fall Classic this year.

With the notable exceptions of Hawks closer Takahiro Mahara and the Dragons’ mini-implosion in Softbank’s three-run eighth in Game 5, both bullpens have pitched well.

The Hawks have been the better of the two, allowing only two runs over 13 innings while the Dragons have been charged with one over 14, though the bullpen allowed three runs to score in Game 5 that were charged to starter Chen Wei-yin.

Dragons reliever Takuya Asao was the winner in the series opener and probably deserved the win more than bullpen-mate Masafumi Hirai in Game 2.

After striking out three over 1 2/3 scoreless innings in Game 1, Asao inherited starter Kazuki Yoshimi’s bases-loaded jam in the seventh inning of Game 2, with the Dragons clinging to a 2-0 lead.

Asao gave up an RBI single to Munenori Kawasaki, but retired Yuichi Honda and Seiichi Uchikawa to preserve the lead in a game the Dragons would go on to win 2-1.

While Morifuku’s star turn might have caught some off guard, Asao is one of the elite. He followed up a second-place finish in the Central League MVP voting last season with an even better year in 2011. He set the CL single-season record with 45 holds and struck out 100 batters in 87 1/3 innings.

Not that Morifuku is exactly unheralded. He 60 made appearances this season, recording 34 holds and a save, and made his first All-Star team. If the Hawks go on to win the title, he’ll have carved out a place in Hawks lore with his performance in Game 4.

“I was preparing for that (the bases being loaded) while I was in the bullpen,” Morifuku said. “As a matter of fact I was well prepared before going out to the mound.”

Asao has allowed a run in 4 2/3 innings on the mound, while Morifuku has thrown 3 1/3 without allowing a run during the series.

The series has given rise to another bullpen star in the Hawks’ Brian Falkenborg, who has recorded a pair of saves. Falkenborg closed games early in the season, while Mahara worked his way back from injury, and has returned to the role for now.

“I’ve been there before,” Falkenborg said. “It’s a bigger stage now, obviously. I gotta get three outs, before they tie it. It’s pretty simple.”

Closing out games was supposed to be Mahara’s job. But that was before he gave up go-ahead runs in the 10th inning on consecutive nights, putting the Hawks in a 2-0 hole.

Softbank manager Koji Akiyama wasn’t taking in any chances in Game 3, passing over Mahara to have Falkenborg preserve the win. Mahara didn’t pitch in Game 4 either, with Falkenborg recording six consecutive outs for the save.

Both bullpens have performed up to expectations so far, which has to be comforting for both managers. Given the lack of offense on display in the series, the advantage may lie with the team that has the stronger bullpen going forward.