TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. — You can walk Alex Cabrera to prevent him from breaking the home record, but don’t try hitting him with a pitch. He might take it personally.
That’s the lesson Fukuoka Daiei Hawks catcher Masanori Taguchi learned the hard way in Saturday’s 4-3 win over the Seibu Lions.
After feeding the Lions slugger a steady diet of high-inside fastballs his first three trips to the plate, Hawks pitcher Kenichi Wakatabe uncorked a 142-kph fastball that ricocheted off Cabrera’s left elbow.
“There were too many balls close to my head,” Cabrera said after the game. “It was unbelievable.”
Cabrera exchanged words with Taguchi and Wakatabe before he was escorted to first.
A few minutes later — after advancing to second base on Taisei Takagi’s single to right field and to third on Susumu Otomo’s sacrifice bunt — Cabrera got a chance to protest in a more physical way.
Hiroshi Hirao tapped a grounder to shortstop Yusuke Torigoe, who threw home to get Cabrera out. But instead of trying to slide into the plate, Cabrera plowed his elbow into Taguchi’s face.
Play was suspended five minutes while Taguchi sought medical attention in the Hawks’ dugout. “I had a feeling something like that was going to happen, but there wasn’t anything I could do,” Taguchi said. “I guess I shouldn’t have taken my mask off.”
In his other four plate appearances, the Venezuelan first baseman didn’t come close to hitting his 56th homer of the season, which would have broke the single-season record held by Sadaharu Oh and Tuffy Rhodes.
Cabrera came up to bat with no score in the bottom of the first inning, with one out and runners on first and third — a situation in which most managers would be tempted to walk the league leader in home runs.
After working up a 3-1 count, Cabrera started to lunge at a high 140-kph fastball but pulled back when the ball rose to eye level and started to walk to first base.
When the umpire called it a strike, Cabrera returned the batter’s box smiling. The next pitch, however, was a low slider that gave Cabrera a free pass to first base.
Cabrera singled to center field in the third inning and walked on four pitches — including three high and tight fastballs — in the fifth.
The game was reminiscent of the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes’ final game against the Hawks last season when Rhodes was threatening to break Oh’s home run record. On that occasion, the Hawks threw nothing but junkballs to Rhodes as Oh, who has been manager of the Hawks since the 1995 season, looked on from the dugout.
“He (Oh) didn’t want me to break the record,” Cabrera said. “It’s not professional. He should make his pitchers throw strikes.”
Hawks reliever Katsunori Okamoto finally gave the capacity crowd of 50,000 the kind of showdown it was waiting for as he struck out Cabrera on three pitches in the ninth inning.
Daiei outfielder Yudai Deguchi hit a two-run homer in the third inning and Torigoe added a two-run double in the seventh for the Hawks.
Hiroyuki Takagi drove in two runs for the Lions with a pair of hits and Tatsuya Ozeki drove in Seibu’s third run with an infield grounder in the sixth inning.
Many in the crowd also showed up to watch Hawks outfielder Koji Akiyama play his last game at the Seibu Dome. The former Seibu Lions All-Star hit a fly ball to first base in his only at-bat.
“Before I went up to bat, they played highlights of my career with the Lions on the big screen and it brought back a lot of good memories,” Akiyama said. “It really made me feel the years slipping by.”
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