Hirokazu Sawamura let out a shout and thrust both arms in the air. The Yomiuri Giants pitcher had been bitten in his first two starts against the Hanshin Tigers, but the third time turned out to be the charm.
Sawamura threw a two-hit shutout and aided his own cause with an RBI double to help lead the Giants to a 4-0 win over the Tigers in front of a crowd of 45,176 on Thursday night at Tokyo Dome.
“I felt great throughout the game, but especially after the last out,” Sawamura said.
Sawamura (2-3) struck out 10 and limited the Tigers’ offense to Takashi Toritani’s single in the first and a base hit by Ryutaro Umeno in the third. The Yomiuri right-hander, who walked a pair, didn’t allow another hit the rest of the way.
“I got into a rhythm and except for a couple of walks, I was able to get the Tigers batters out with the help of our defense,” Sawamura said.
The performance was easily the high point of what has been a tough season for the fourth-year pitcher. He didn’t make his first start until July 6 while on the mend from an injury to his right shoulder. He threw eight innings of one-run ball in his first appearance, a win over the Chunichi Dragons, but lost his next three starts. Two of those outings were games against the Tigers where he pitched well but was doomed by one or two costly mistakes.
Sawamura, who saw his ERA shrink from 5.51 to 4.32, finally put it all together on Thursday.
“I think he looks better this year than he’s looked in previous years,” said the Tigers’ Matt Murton, who went 0-for-3 and saw his average fall to .336, dropping him from first to second among Central League hitters.
“You have to tip your hat to him. His numbers kind of don’t tell the whole story in my opinion. I’ve seen him three times now. The one time, right after the All-Star break, he was catching a lot of plate, ball was up a little bit. But the first time and again tonight, he did a really good job of pitching.”
Giants outfielder Itaru Hashimoto led off the bottom of the first with a home run to give the home team an early lead.
“I wanted to get us off to a good start by getting on base,” Hashimoto said. “The home run was a bonus.”
Hashimoto singled in his next two at-bats and ended the game 3-for-4 at the plate.
“Chono has been out and I decided to go with Hashimoto in the leadoff spot,” Yomiuri manager Tatsunori Hara said, referring to Hisayoshi Chono who suffered a minor knee injury last week, but was available to pinch-hit on Thursday if needed.
“(Hashimoto) really came through for us tonight.”
The Kyojin gave Sawamura a big cushion in the second, reeling off four consecutive hits, a stretch that included the pitcher’s run-scoring double and RBI singles by Yasuyuki Kataoka and Hayato Sakamoto, to drive in three runs and make the score 4-0.
“That hit barrage in the second was what effectively put the game away for us,” Hara said. “Sawamura did the rest.”
Tigers starter Shintaro Fujinami (8-7) struck out eight, but allowed four runs on seven hits through five innings. Fujinami also walked two batters and lost his third consecutive decision.
The Hanshin offense was collectively caged for most of the night, with the team managing to get just four runners on base.
“Sawamura did a pretty good job,” said Tigers slugger Mauro Gomez. “Good control, good slider, fork. I tip my hat.”
Hanshin fell to 5-7 against the Giants at Tokyo Dome this year and won’t be back during the regular season. The contest also marked the final stop on the Tigers’ annual “Road Trip of Death,” during which the team vacates Koshien Stadium for most of
August to make room the National High School Baseball Championship. The Tigers last played at Koshien on Aug. 1 and were scheduled to return home to face the Tokyo Yakult Swallows on Friday.
The team, which hosted a pair of “home” series at Osaka Dome during their time on the road, went 11-9 away from Koshien this month. The team left Koshien in second place in the Central League and 2 1/2 games behind the first-place Giants and will return in the same spot.
“To be able to be in your own bed for more than two or three nights at a time, to go back to your routine at home will be nice,” Murton said. “To be able to get through this stretch in August, to leave for this stretch and come back in the same spot we were in before we left, we really did a good job. Still have a long way to go obviously, but I think considering our situation in August, I think we’ve done a good job.”
The Giants did their job by keeping their rivals from creeping closer in the standings but acknowledged that nothing has been decided yet.
“It’s a big victory for us,” Sawamura said, “but we have to keep going and not have a letdown.”
BayStars 6, Dragons 5 (12)
Swallows 6, Carp 3
Hawks 9, Fighters 3
Buffaloes 4, Marines 0
Eagles 10, Lions 3