FUKUOKA — The Hanshin Tigers had the beer on ice in anticipation of a wild victory celebration, while the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks’ “Japan Champions 2003” logo T-shirts were stacked up next to a Fukuoka Dome dumpster in case they had to be thrown away.

News photoTadahito Iguchi of the Hawks pumps his fist after hitting a two-run homer in the first inning of Game 6 of the Japan Series against the Hanshin Tigers.

Game 6 of the Japan Series was about to begin, a must win for the Hawks, down three games to two, and certainly one the visiting Tigers could not afford to lose either. That would send it to a deciding Game 7 in a series where the home team had won the first five.

“I’d like to say I’ll see you tomorrow. That’s from the heart,” Hanshin batting coach Tom O’Malley told reporters prior to Sunday’s contest. “But I hope I don’t see you tomorrow.” What he meant, of course, was he hoped there would be no Game 7.

As Game 6 began, it quickly became obvious the Hawks were happy to be home in the Dome and not have to play before 52,500 out of 53,000 Tigers fans at Koshien Stadium that helped Hanshin win Games 3, 4 and 5.

Still, the entire left field bleachers section was full of backers of the Central League champions. But it appeared the crowd of 48,000 was 80 percent Daiei supporters.

Besides the home town fans, Fukuoka also regained the advantage of having designated hitter Julio Zuleta back in the lineup. The Panamanian power supply was the hero in Game 1, ending it with a “sayonara” hit in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Zuleta also slammed a three-run homer in Game 2 but was limited to a pinch hitting role at Koshien and made two infield outs.

“It’s tough being a pinch hitter,” he said. “As the DH, I know I will get four or five at-bats in the game, and I know when my turn is coming up, so I prepare to go to the plate.”

At chilly, windy Koshien, he had to come off the bench cold, at a moment’s notice. “That’s tough,” he pointed out. Zuleta also had a chance to re-enter the competition for Japan Series MVP, but insists that is not his No. 1 priority.

“If it happens, that would be great,” he said. “But I’m not thinking about MVP, only about winning the Series.”

The Hawks moved one step closer to that goal tonight. The last-minute decision by Hanshin manager Senichi Hoshino to start veteran right-hander Hideki Irabu in Game 6 backfired.

On the same day the Florida Marlins defeated the New York Yankees to end the World Series in six games, we were assured our first seven-game Japan Series since the Yakult Swallows defeated the Seibu Lions, four games to three, in 1993.

Both the Tigers and Hawks will have the cold beer ready and the celebration halls booked, and the Daiei “Japan Series Champions” T-shirts can be moved from near the trash bin closer to the Hawks’ locker room door.

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