SENDAI – The mighty Yomiuri Giants weren’t about to relinquish the Japan Series title without a good fight.
Not even in the face of perfection.
Rookie pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano was great, Jose Lopez made up for two early mistakes with a two-run homer, and the Giants dealt Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles ace Masahiro Tanaka his first loss in over a year with a 4-2 victory over the Eagles in Game 6 of the Japan Series on Saturday at Kleenex Stadium.
The Kyojin evened the series, and the title will be up for grabs when the teams meet in a decisive Game 7 on Sunday.
“The series is tied 3-3 now, and the Eagles have played well,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said. “We were able to get past Tanaka tonight, and it should be another exciting game tomorrow.
“Of course, we expect to win.”
Tanaka threw a complete game in defeat, allowing four runs on 12 hits while striking out seven and walking one. He came out on the wrong end of a decision for the first time since losing to the Seibu Lions on Aug. 19, 2012.
“I made too many mistakes with my pitches, and they didn’t miss them,” Tanaka said.
His record-setting streak of 30-consecutive winning decisions (including the postseason) skidded to a halt with the rare defeat.
“Tanaka has always helped carry this team,” catcher Motohiro Shima said. “So it should’ve been our time to back him up. You can’t blame him for this loss. We feel sorry for him. We’ll just have to do what we’re supposed to do tomorrow.”
Tanaka’s velocity was a few ticks below where it usually sits early, though he dialed it up when needed, but he was his usual dominating self with a splitter the Giants struggled to get a handle on.
The cracks began to show in the fifth, when after giving up a double to Hayato Sakamoto to lead off the inning, Tanaka threw a splitter that hung over the plate for Lopez, who deposited it over the wall in left field. The Giants continued to chip away, driving in another run in the fifth and one more in the sixth.
“I just came up short when things mattered most,” Tanaka said. “It proved that I still have a long way to go in my development.”
Tanaka outdueled Sugano in the second game of the series, but the rookie got his revenge Saturday.
Sugano battled through a few early hiccups to throw seven strong innings, allowing two runs — one earned — on three hits and striking out three. Reliever Tetsuya Yamaguchi worked the eighth and into the ninth and Scott Mathieson was credited with a save after retiring the final two batters.
“I gave up the runs early, but was able to stay calm and pitch with patience, believing that our offense would give me some support,” Sugano said.
“I felt some pressure, but I went to the mound trying to use that to my advantage.”
Lopez came into the game without a hit in the series, but that didn’t stop him from predicting that the Giants would force a Game 7 during practice on Friday.
He got off to a horrible start, letting an easy grounder squirt through his legs at first base during second inning, which allowed a run to score, and committing another error later in the game.
The Yomiuri infielder kept his focus despite the early miscues.
“Baseball is something you do for nine innings,” Lopez said. “The point is not to continue with any errors after that.”
He atoned for the mistakes with his game-tying two-run homer in the fifth, and drove in another run with an RBI groundout in the sixth.
“Lopez did not have a hit all series, but he came through tonight with our first hit and tied the game with a two-run home run,” Hara said. “It was a good time for him to break out of his slump. His batting tonight was the way he was hitting all during the regular season.”
Lopez finished 2-for-4 with three RBIs. Yoshinobu Takahashi, another of the slumping Kyojin, also drove in a run for the Giants and went 2-for-5.
“I had been so horrible, so I was just desperate to help the team,” Takahashi said. “I’m pleased I could step up at the right time today.
“Had we lost, we would’ve been done, so it was obviously great for us to win today. We’ve been given new life, and we’ll do our best.”
The Eagles will have to move on quickly from the loss, with another chance to clinch the title coming Sunday night.
Rakuten managed just three hits on the night, two coming from Kazuo Matsui. Shima had the other.
“We’ll be playing our final game tomorrow and we really want to play a good game,” said Eagles infielder Ginji Akaminai. “If we play our best game, the results will follow.”
The Giants, however, seem to have the momentum heading into the series finale.
“The mood changed today,” Hara said. “I hope we can maintain it during the final game.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.