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MVP Arai, solid pitching guide CL All-Stars to Game 2 victory

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Most of the attention before and during this year’s All-Star Series was centered around a group of talented rookies.

In Game 2, a few members of Japanese baseball’s older set reminded everyone that they still have a lot of gas in the tank.

Hanshin Tigers veteran Takahiro Arai drove in the tiebreaking run in the third inning and his Central League teammates made the lead stand up in a 3-1 victory over the Pacific League on Saturday night.

“I’m glad I was able to put a good swing on it,” Arai said of his RBI single off the Seibu Lions’ Kazuhisa Makita. “I don’t think I’m the leader (of the team), but for sure, I’m having fun.”

The win gives the CL the lead in the series, which opened with a 1-1 tie on Friday night. The final game will be played on Monday in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. Hanshin’s Atsushi Nomi will start for the CL against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ Hiroshi Kisanuki.

“The Pacific League outplayed us during interleague, so we are here to take this All-Star Series,” said CL manager Tatsunori Hara. “We’ve got one more game and want to keep it going.”

Saturday’s contest drew an enthusiastic crowd of 31,816 to Jingu Stadium, home park of the Yakult Swallows.

“We were happy to play in this atmosphere,” Arai said. “It was fun.”

Swallows fans in attendance went home doubly pleased, as Yakult rookie pitcher Yasuhiro “Ryan” Ogawa picked up the win. Ogawa took the mound in the third and went on to allow one hit and strike out one in two scoreless frames. Makita was charged with the loss.

“I was really nervous,” Ogawa said. “I was just trying to put up zeros. I’m happy I was able to pitch my game as usual.”

Ogawa has been one of the few bright spots for the last-place Swallows, going 10-2 with a 2.62 ERA in 15 regular-season starts prior to the All-Star break.

“I think he’s been the best pitcher in the first half,” Swallows slugger Wladimir Balentien said. “To be able to play here at Jingu in front of the Swallows fans in his first year in the league, I think that’s something exciting.”

Fellow rookies Tomoyuki Sugano of the Yomiuri Giants and the Tigers’ Shintaro Fujinami also took the mound for the CL, under the watchful eye of 42-year-old Chunichi Dragons backstop Motonobu Tanishige.

“Our veteran catcher Tanishige led the ‘Golden Rookie’ pitchers well,” Hara said. “That was one of the elements of our victory. The way he led them maximized the pitchers’ abilities.”

Yakult’s 42-year-old Shinya Miyamoto drove in a run for the CL, while Giants star Hayato Sakamoto had an RBI single among his three hits. Arai also finished with three hits.

“Our veterans showed their presence,” Hara said. “They really displayed good hitting.”

Shohei Otani, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ two-way rookie star, hit leadoff for the Pa League and finished 1-for-4 with a double. Otani started the game in right field and later moved to left, just one night after pitching, batting and playing in the outfield during the opener in Sapporo.

“I enjoyed the experience,” Otani said.

Four members of Japan’s latest rookie class, Sugano, Fujinami, Ogawa, and Otani, the biggest star of them all, have been the talk of the NPB for most of the season, and that didn’t change during the All-Star Series, with media and fans following their every move. They’ve not failed to impress in their first trip to Japan’s Midsummer Classic.

“I was watching them and just thinking about how good they are,” Arai said.

Fukuoka Softbank Hawks reliever Kodai Senga, currently in his third season, also had a great showing, at one point striking out four straight batters, a string that included NPB home run leaders Balentien and the Yokohama BayStars’ Tony Blanco in succession. Senga allowed one hit and finished with five strikeouts in a pair of scoreless frames.

Softbank’s Yuya Hasegawa, this year’s interleague MVP, had the best night at the plate for the PL, finishing 3-for-4 with a double.

A group of former players from high school powerhouse Osaka Toin brought some light-hearted antics into the game in the sixth.

The hard-throwing Fujinami got things started by tossing a very slow ball over the head of the Fighters’ Sho Nakata, drawing smiles from both dugouts. Fujinami immediately threw another, which prompted Nakata to throw his bat and jokingly take a few steps toward the mound, much to the amusement of mastermind Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who watched the proceedings with glee from the CL bench. Fujinami went on to strikeout Nakata.

“It was perfect from Nishioka-san’s point-of-view,” Fujinami said.

Otani led off the game with a double off fellow rookie Sugano. Doubles have been one of Otani’s calling cards this season, with the 19-year-old having recorded 13 so far.

He moved to third on a single by Hasegawa and came home when Softbank’s Seiichi Uchikawa hit into a double play.

The CL tied the score on Miyamoto’s RBI single in the second, and went ahead when Arai drove in Hanshin teammate Matt Murton with an RBI single in the third.

Sakamoto tacked on an insurance run in the sixth with his RBI single.