/

Fighters face pivotal test at home after consecutive losses

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

The Yomiuri Giants are headed to Hokkaido with an eye on capturing the Japan Series title. The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters are headed home simply trying to come up with a way to earn a return trip to Tokyo.

The Kyojin edged the Fighters 1-0 in Game 2 of the Japan Series in front of 44,932 Sunday night at Tokyo Dome, taking a 2-0 lead in the series, which resumes on Tuesday at Sapporo Dome.

“We’re going to Hokkaido, so the scene will change, but hopefully the results of the games will stay the same,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said after Game 2.

Yomiuri won by the slimmest of margins, taking the lead on Hisayoshi Chono’s leadoff homer in the first and needing eight shutout innings from second-year pitcher Hirokazu Sawamura to hold the Fighters at bay.

“To win after scoring just one run is always satisfying,” Hara said.

The Fighters returned home to Sapporo not only down 2-0, but with the status of slugger Sho Nakata in doubt.

Nakata was hit in the hand with a pitch in the first inning and taken out of the game in the fourth. X-rays on Nakata’s hand revealed the hand to be bruised, not broken, but his status could be in doubt heading into Game 3.

“I think he’ll be affected by the injury a bit, but he can still play,” Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama said.

Losing Nakata, or even having the slugger in the lineup but ailing, is a blow to an offense that is already sputtering.

The Fighters have managed to score one run and record just eight hits through the first two games of the series.

Giants ace Tetsuya Utsumi threw seven shutout innings against Nippon Ham in Game 1, and Sawamura did even more damage in Game 2. The Fighters’ only run of the series came when Daikan Yoh homered off reliever Dicky Gonzalez in the ninth inning of Game 1.

“Yesterday we gave up only one run and tonight we won 1-0,” Hara said. “All the pitchers are in top form.”

Fighters starter Masaru Takeda was in top form on Sunday as well, but it wasn’t enough to keep his team from taking the loss. The left-hander allowed one run on four hits and struck out a season-high 10 over six innings.

“We scored the one run (in the first) and wanted to add one or two more, which we couldn’t,” Hara said. “Our batters kept striking out so many times. I don’t think they’ve studied the opponent well yet.”

Takeda wasn’t ready to concede defeat in the series, even with his team facing a 2-0 deficit.

“I was able to pitch my way,” Takeda said. “Compared to my previous series, I pitched better, and I believe I’ll have another chance. So I want to pitch aggressively next time out.”

The road doesn’t get much easier for the Fighters in Sapporo.

While rookie Ryosuke Miyaguni will likely get a start on the road, the main concern is when Hara will choose to deploy right-hander D.J. Houlton.

Houlton, who joined Yomiuri this season, was 12-8 with a 2.44 ERA during the regular season and helped get the Kyojin into the Japan Series by winning the decisive sixth game in the Central League Climax Series final stage against the Chunichi Dragons on three days’ rest.

More importantly, Houlton spent his first four years in Japan in the Pacific League with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, meaning he’s already very familiar with the Fighters’ lineup.

Last season, Houlton went on the road and won Game 4 of the 2011 Japan Series. The Hawks would eventually claim the title in seven games.

“I guess I feel a little more confident, having been there last year,” Houlton said earlier in the series. “It was so recent, so it’s still fresh in my mind.”

The specter of another former Hawks pitcher, Toshiya Sugiuchi, also looms large. Sugiuchi, who joined Yomiuri this year as well, missed the Climax Series with an injured shoulder but could possibly pitch if needed in Sapporo.

Nippon Ham starters Brian Wolfe, Masaru Nakamura and, if necessary, Keisuke Tanimoto (in some order) are expected to be tasked with trying to help shift the series back to Tokyo for a final stanza.

“It’ll be interesting, because I didn’t get to throw against them (Yomiuri) during the regular season,” Wolfe said. “I threw against the last year, but this year I haven’t pitched against them.”