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Pena comes good to send Hawks into next round

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Wily Mo Pena said he couldn’t remember the last time he was in an elimination game.

He’ll have a hard time forgetting this one.

Pena hit a two-run double in the fourth inning, Seiichi Uchikawa added an insurance run in the eighth, and the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks won the Pacific League Climax Series first stage with a 3-2 victory over the Seibu Lions in Game 3 on Monday night at Seibu Dome.

“I was trying to help my team,” Pena said. “In my first two games, I didn’t get a hit. That’s why I was trying to stay positive and just help our team.

“We’ve got to take the next step. We had to play these games first, and now we have to move on to the next stage and try to get back to the championship like we did last year.”

The defending Japan Series champions advanced to the final stage of the climax series with the win. They’ll face the PL champion Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in Sapporo for the right to represent the PL in the Japan Series.

“We played the way we played throughout the season,” said Hawks infielder Yuichi Honda. “That will be the key for us, to play like that in Sapporo.”

Softbank will have to hit the ground running as the Fighters will have an automatic 1-0 advantage in the series as the league champions.

“We play one game at a time, and now we have advanced and can finally think of the next challenge,” Hawks manager Koji Akiyama said. “That’s how you have to operate in this business.”

Pena had been hitless in the first two games and, after a flyout to center in the second inning was 0-for-9 in the series before ripping his two-run double to left.

“I will thank the manager for the rest of my life,” Pena said. “I told him it was going to be different. He believed in me and that’s what happens when you believe in somebody. It will pay off.”

The Hawks were sitting pretty after Uchikawa made the score 3-1 with an RBI single in the top of the eighth.

“I’m so exhausted,” Uchikawa said. “We were desperate to get another run, so I put all of my pent-up energy from this year into that hit. It was a huge hit for us.”

The Hawks may have given themselves some breathing room, but the Lions weren’t going to let them off the hook that easily.

With runners on first and second with two outs, PL home run leader Takeya Nakamura pounced on a slider from reliever Masahiko Morifuku and hit a ball toward the spot where his solo homer in the fourth cleared the wall.

For a moment it looked as if Nakamura had turned the tide of the game with a go-ahead three-run home run, but Ryuma Kidokoro made the catch a few steps in front of the center-field wall to end the inning.

Lions infielder, and former Hawks player, Jose Ortiz hit a solo shot off Hideki Okajima to lead off the ninth to cut the lead to one run. Okajima retired the next three batters to end the game.

“That one run really hurt us,” Lions manager Hisanobu Watanabe said. “We wanted to prevent that. But our players went all out and played such a great game.

“In a short series, you can’t give your opponent a run. We weren’t good enough to come back from the deficit.”

Hiroyuki Nakajima finished 0-for-3 with a walk in what may have been his final game in a Lions uniform.

Nakajima is expected to purse a career in the major leagues next season. The Lions shortstop was posted last year, but returned to Japan when contract negotiations with the New York Yankees fell apart. Nakajima, a career .302 hitter with 162 home runs and 738 RBIs in 11 professional seasons, is free to negotiate with any team of his choosing this time around.

Hawks starter Kenji Otonari threw five innings of one-run ball to earn the win.

“As a starter, I should have been on the mound longer, but I’m relieved that I left with our team ahead,” Otonari said.

Reliever Sho Iwaski worked two scoreless innings and Morifuku survived his close call to keep Seibu off the board in the eighth. Okajima earned the save despite allowing a run.

It was a short outing for Lions starter Kazuhisa Ishii, who entered the game 5-1 with a 2.01 ERA in 12 career postseason appearances.

Ishii was charged with a pair of runs over 3⅓ innings. He struck out two and walked one.

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.

Dragons oust Swallows

Kyodo
NAGOYA

The Chunichi Dragons’ hopes of going to a third straight Japan Series remained alive Monday when they came from a run down in the eighth on a Tony Blanco grand slam to clinch the first stage of the Central League Climax Series.

Trailing 1-0, Blanco slammed a 3-1 pitch from Tony Barnette with the bases loaded into the stands in left field and the Dragons beat the Yakult Swallows 4-1 to win the best-of-three first stage 2-1 and advance to the Climax Series final stage against the league champion Yomiuri Giants at Tokyo Dome starting Wednesday.

Barnette, who earned a two-inning save when the Swallows squared the series at 1-1 with a 1-0 victory on Sunday, came in with two on and one out in the bottom of the eighth. He walked the first batter he faced and threw three straight balls to Blanco.

For the second time in the game, a 3-0 count with runners on was an invitation for the Dominican slugger to swing as hard as he could. He missed the first pitch from Barnette but got all of the second one.

“That was the best ball I’ve ever hit in my life,” Blanco said in the on-field hero interview. “I went up with the intention of driving a pitch to the outfield to tie the game with a sacrifice fly.”

The Swallows took the lead in the second inning off 47-year-old Masahiro Yamamoto. Shinya Miyamoto singled to open the inning and stole second with one out on the first pitch to Ryoji Aikawa, who did the honors with a single to right. It was the fourth hit of the series for the Swallows catcher.

The Swallows came within inches of a second score in the inning, but were denied by Dragons left fielder Kazuhiro Wada, who snared a two-out sinking liner in the web of his glove that would have plated Aikawa.

Yakult lefty Kyohei Muranaka repeatedly pitched out of jams with a combination of good pitches, good luck and good fielding and allowed no runs in 5⅓ innings.

The Swallows survived a one-out, two-on jam in the sixth — when Golden Glove third baseman Shinya Miyamoto robbed Blanco with a diving snag of a low-flying rocket headed for the left-field corner. Katsuki Akagawa worked a 1-2-3 seventh but surrendered Yohei Oshima’s ninth hit of the series to lead off the eighth.

With one out and the tying run on second, Tetsuya Yamamoto walked the only batter he faced and Barnette, whose 33 saves tied for the CL lead, walked Wada to load the bases before falling behind to Blanco.

Yamamoto took the loss, while Takuya Asao, who worked the final two innings for the Dragons, collected the win.