While the Buffaloes had a few options with whom they’d start for the first game, Hokkaido Nippon Ham’s choice was clear-cut: Yu Darvish.

Giving up just one run and fanning 14 in a 4-1 win over Orix, the 22-year-old MVP hurler showed a gutsy performance on the mound, giving the Fighters a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three Pacific League Climax Series playoffs.

But the victory didn’t necessarily come easily for Darvish, who notched a spectacular 16-4 record with a 1.88 ERA and 208 Ks in the regular season.

In the first frame, Darvish allowed the Buffs’ leadoff man Tomotaka Sakaguchi to reach on a safety bunt and two batters later, Alex Cabrera’s grounder ricocheted off his leg. But he survived the danger, striking out cleanup hitter Tuffy Rhodes and Mitsutaka Goto to retire the side yielding no runs.

Darvish again gave up an infield hit on another Sakaguchi safety bunt in the eighth, and put runners on first and third via his own throwing error, a wild pitch and a walk. He gave up a run on Cabrera’s sacrifice fly, but got out of the jam when Rhodes hit into a double-play.

Meanwhile, Darvish struggled throughout the contest with his breaking ball selections, because his signature pitch wasn’t effective enough in the game.

“My sliders that were pretty good in September didn’t bite,” Darvish said after the game.

But what’s great about this tall right-hander is that he can still hold opponents and, most importantly, win.

Darvish said that instead of sliders he used more two-seam fastballs and forkballs.

“I think they got confused,” he said.

Darvish, as usual, was blunt when speaking with the media after the game. But with the patient but strong performance by the ace, who went the distance on 139 pitches, Fighters manager Masataka Nashida couldn’t hide his smile of satisfaction.

“He pitched like our ace,” Nashida said of Darvish. “I’m very happy we didn’t use other pitchers as well.”

Said Darvish: “I’m pleased that we won a game that we should win. I could pitch tenaciously. We didn’t want to lose in this kind of game by any means.”

Uchikawa closes in

YOKOHAMA (Kyodo) Central League batting leader Seiichi Uchikawa hit a go-ahead two-run homer in a seventh-inning rally Saturday as the Yokohama BayStars sent the Hanshin Tigers to their fourth straight defeat with a 5-4 win.

Uchikawa, who has all but secured his first batting title, put Yokohama ahead for good with his shot to left field after an RBI groundout by Kazuya Fujita made it a one-run game at Yokohama Stadium. Uchikawa finished 2-for-4 and raised his average to .378, with Norichika Aoki second in the league at .351 before Saturday night’s game.

Shuichi Murata and Yuki Yoshimura had RBI hits in the first for Yokohama before the Tigers cut the lead with a Tomoaki Kanemoto RBI single in the fourth and went ahead 4-2 with a three-run seventh, keyed by a two-run single by Ryo Asai.

Hanshin, which has missed out on a CL pennant after leading the league for much of the season, and Yokohama will play their final games of the regular season Sunday. Hanshin will face the third-place Chunichi Dragons in the first stage of the Climax Series getting under way on Oct. 18.

The winner of the first stage will meet the Yomiuri Giants, who won their second straight league title on Friday, in the second stage starting on Oct. 22, to play for a spot in the Japan Series.

Giants 3, Swallows 2


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