SAPPORO – With teams playing cautiously, postseason ball often tends to be an endurance contest.
On Wednesday night, it appeared that the Hawks would prevail at one point, but their opponents just refused to give in.
Yoshio Itoi launched a game-tying two-run homer and pinch hitter Tomohiro Nioka drove in a go-ahead run in the seventh inning as Hokkaido Nippon Ham edged the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks 3-2 in Game 1 of the Pacific League Climax Series final stage.
Since the regular-season champion is given a one-win advantage, the top-seeded Fighters are now 2-0 in the series.
“It feels absolutely great,” Itoi said after the game at Sapporo Dome. “It feels like our fans and team are so united right now, so we just want to keep it going in the rest of the series.”
For much of the game, it was a breathtaking duel by the two starting pitchers — Mitsuo Yoshikawa for the Fighters and Yang Yao-hsun for the Hawks.
The Hawks finally notched something other than zero in the seventh, when a shallow flyball hit by Hitoshi Tamura dropped between shortstop Makoto Kaneko and center fielder Daikan Yoh to drive in two base-runners from two outs.
The two runs scored late seemed to give a huge boost to the Hawks, who had beaten the Seibu Lions in the first stage, yet the Fighters responded with their bats quickly.
In the bottom of the seventh, Itoi launched a high-flying dinger into the right-field stands off Yang, who had given up just two hits until then, to equal the game.
Nippon Ham skipper Hideki Kuriyama didn’t let the momentum-shifting moment go to waste as he sent pinch-hitting specialist Nioka on for Micah Hoffpauir with runners on first and third with two outs.
Nioka decisively swung at the Hawks’ left-handed reliever Masahiko Morifuku’s first pitch to drive in the game-winning run.
“I reacted well to the pitch,” Itoi said. “I’d had frustrating at-bats earlier, so I wanted to take advantage of the chance by any means.”
Nioka said: “I wasn’t necessarily looking for the first pitch. I was just going to swing at a pitch if it was hittable enough.”
Yoshikawa (1-0), who led the league with a 1.71 ERA, pitched patiently and ended up earning the win for the Fighters. The lefty allowed seven hits and two runs, fanning nine, in seven innings.
“The manager told me to pitch as I’ve done all through this year,” Yoshikawa said. “It was a game we had to take and I thought my job was to not let them get on the board first, which I wasn’t able to do. So it’s a shame I couldn’t really do it, though the team ended up winning.”
Yang (0-1) gave up three hits and a homer for the loss.
The Hawks had 10 hits, while Nippon Ham came up with just six. Yuichi Honda was 3-for-4 and scored a run for Softbank.
Hirotoshi Masui and closer Hisashi Takeda pitched an inning apiece in the eighth and ninth to finished the game. Takeda got the save.
The second game will start at 6 p.m. on Thursday at the same venue.