FUKUOKA – Kenji Otonari returned to the mound at Yafuoku Dome for the first time in over a year on Sunday, and pitched better than ever as the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks beat the Orix Buffaloes 3-2 to complete a three-game sweep in a battle between Pacific League leaders.
Otonari (1-0), who had season-ending surgery in June 2013 for ossification of the yellow ligament, was starting for the first time since May 31, 2013. He allowed a run on three hits and two walks in seven innings, while striking out five. After giving up a first-inning run, the 29-year-old lefty held Orix to just two singles over the next six innings.
“I was able to pitch the way I’m capable of,” he said. “I would be lying if I said I had no doubts about my command.”
The start was his second with the top-team game since his surgery, having thrown seven pitches in a 1-2-3 relief appearance in a loss against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
Otonari came out with a lot of bite on his fastball and good movement on his splitter and slider. The Buffaloes’ only run against him came from a one-out walk and an RBI double, when Joey Butler hit the jackpot chasing a 1-2 slider low out of the zone and knocked it into the gap in right center.
“Through all his hardship, he’s been preparing seriously for this day,” Hawks skipper Koji Akiyama said. “That’s why he got results straight away.”
Softbank which started the series in second place, moved 1 1/2 games ahead of Orix. Before a crowd of 38,561, the hosts scored all three of their runs off Buffaloes starter Brandon Dickson (7-8) in the second-inning.
The former St. Louis Cardinals right-hander issued a pair of one-out walks, but was unable to get the double play ground ball he needed. Dickson threw a low curveball that Toru Hosokawa grounded just hard enough up the middle for a game-tying RBI single.
Kenji Akashi did the same with a 3-2 curveball, hitting it slowly through the hole between first and second for another RBI single. With two outs, Kenta Imamiya hit a sharp — but playable — grounder past first baseman Takahiro Okada to plate Softbank’s third run.
Yuito Mori worked a 1-2-3 eighth against the bottom of the Orix order, but the Buffaloes managed a run in the ninth off Ryota Igarashi. With the tying run at second, Igarashi struck out Wily Mo Pena to earn his first save of the season and hand Otonari his first victory.
Fighters 7, Eagles 3
At Sendai’s Kobo Stadium, Sho Nakata overturned a one-run deficit in the seventh with his 17th home run, a three-run shot, and Michel Abreu, who hit 32 home runs last year, followed with his first of the year as Hokkaido Nippon Ham won a seesaw game with Tohoku Rakuten.
Marines 5, Lions 3
At Seibu Dome, Chad Huffman’s ninth-inning RBI double off Seibu ace Takayuki Kishi (8-4) broke a 3-3 tie as Chiba Lotte overcame a three-run deficit.
Marines closer Yuji Nishino allowed two men on in the ninth, but retired sluggers Takeya Nakamura and Ernesto Mejia to record his 22th save.
Carp 6, Tigers 1
At Hiroshima’s Mazda Stadium, Yuya Fukui (1-1) threw his first complete game victory in three years, holding Hanshin to a run on nine hits, and Hiroshima scored four times off Randy Messenger (8-8) in the second to beat the Tigers.
BayStars 10, Swallows 1
At Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium, Tony Blanco drove in the game’s first run and hit one of Yokohama’s three home runs in a 17-hit battering en route to the BayStars’ ninth straight win over last-place Tokyo Yakult.
Giants 2, Dragons 1
At Nagoya Dome, Yoshiyuki Kamei’s eighth-inning sacrifice fly broke a 1-1 tie and made a winner out of Kan Otake (7-4) as league-leading Yomiuri came from behind to beat Chunichi and avoided being swept in three games.