OSAKA — Before the Chunichi Dragons’ series finale against the Hanshin Tigers a fan asked Tyrone Woods for four home runs.
Woods didn’t get to four but the one he hit was more than enough.
Starter Kazuki Yoshimi tossed an absolute gem and Woods broke a scoreless tie in the ninth with a towering two-run home run into the upper reaches of Kyocera Dome as the Dragons defeated the Tigers 2-0 to advance to the second stage of the Central League Climax Series in front of a mostly Hanshin crowd of 33,021 on Monday night.
“We just lived to fight another day today,” Woods said. “It was either win or go home.”
With two outs in the ninth and facing Hanshin closer Kyuji Fujikawa with the count full, Woods was waiting on the pitcher’s vaunted fastball and got what he was looking for on the sixth pitch of the at-bat.
“In that situation he doesn’t want to get beat with his second-best pitch,” Woods said. “So I knew the fastball was coming. I just wanted to make contact with it and not miss it.
“I knew right away it was gone.”
Chunichi closer Hitoki Iwase followed by retiring the Tigers in order in the ninth to send the Dragons into the second stage of the CLCS where they will meet the Yomiuri Giants.
“The top of the ninth inning saw a classic baseball confrontation between (Hanshin’s) ace closer Fujikawa and our cleanup hitter Woods,” Dragons manager Hiromitsu Ochiai said. “It was good we got the best of it, and that was the ball game.”
The game may not have reached that point if not for a brilliant performance from the 24-year-old Yoshimi.
“Yoshimi came through for us despite the pressure, and I am happy I chose him to start tonight’s game,” said Ochiai, who pulled a fast one by sending out the young pitcher and not 42-year-old-lefty Masahiro Yamamoto as most of the media had predicted.
The third-year hurler struck out four over eight innings of shutout ball in an outing that saw just one baserunner advance past first. Yoshimi, who allowed just four hits and no walks, did not give up more than one hit in any inning in the victory.
“The game went by so fast, it seemed like a blur to me,” Yoshimi said. “I don’t remember much. I was being careful not to allow consecutive hits.
“This game caps a great year for me, and I’ll do my best if I get a chance to pitch again against the Giants.”
The Chunichi hurler got a scare in the eighth when Norihiro Akahoshi hit a two-out double then advanced to third on second baseman Masahiro Araki’s throwing error. Yoshimi responded by making short work of the next batter, Kentaro Sekimoto, to end the inning.
“Yoshimi stepped up big for us,” Woods said. “The whole time I was thinking Yamamoto-san was going to pitch and for Yoshimi to coming out, I was ‘wow, that’s who’s pitching?’ Ochiai-san really pulled one out of his shoe on that one.”
Fellow 24-year-old starter Minoru Iwata was even better for the Tigers.
Iwata tossed eight innings of one-hit ball, retired the final 13 batters he faced, allowed no runs and struck out six. He gave up his only hit in the second and didn’t allow a baserunner past first.
Iwata was pinch-hit for in the ninth and did not factor into the decision. Fujikawa took the loss after allowing Woods’ shot in the ninth.
“Iwata also pitched a great game,” Yoshimi said. “I’m just glad I could keep up with him throughout.”
The dueling youngsters, who entered the 2008 season with a combined 14 career appearances, gave up five hits between them in an intense pitcher’s duel that was highlighted at times by brilliant defensive plays — and marred by a few hiccups in the field — from both teams. “Those pitchers were good,” Woods said. They pitched unbelievably. It was a pitcher’s duel early. It was a really good game. I’ve never been in a game like that before.” The loss marks the last game at the helm for Tigers manager Akinobu Okada.
Against the team’s wishes, Okada offered his resignation shortly before the end of the season. Okada felt he needed to take responsibility for the Tigers squandering a 13-game lead in the CL standings and losing the pennant to the Giants.
Hanshin and Chunichi fans gave him a moving sendoff, chanting his name for several minutes following a long standing ovation.
Chunichi’s win sets up a rematch of the second stage of last year’s climax series against the league champion Giants at Tokyo Dome. The Dragons swept the Giants, also last season’s CL champion, in three games last season.
They face a much tougher task this season as the Giants were awarded an automatic 1-0 series lead by virtue of winning the league title. Yomiuri won the season series against Chunichi 14-10.
“It’s going to be a tough series,” Woods said. “The Giants are a tough team with good pitching and strong batters. We just gotta go in and do exactly what we did here.”
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