TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. — The sleeping lions finally woke up and swallowed the ham.
Seibu started an assault from early on and veteran lefty Kazuhisa Ishii delivered one of his best performances of 2008 to power the Lions to an overwhelming 9-4 win over the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in Game 4 of the second stage of the Pacific League Climax Series at Seibu Dome on Tuesday.
With the clear-cut victory, the Lions, the regular-season champions who have a one-win advantage in the series, now take a 3-2 series lead, pulling within one win from clinching a spot in the Japan Series.
“My condition wasn’t necessarily good (or) bad,” Kaz Ishii said. “It didn’t matter because all I wanted to do was to pitch with my heart.
“It didn’t matter who I was pitching to, but how I was pitching.”
Ishii, who previously played for the Yakult Swallows, Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets, allowed five hits and three runs (one earned) with 13 strikeouts in seven innings, topping his postseason best of 12 (Game 1 of the 2001 Japan Series for the Swallows).
“I was expecting him to pitch good to some degree,” Seibu skipper Hisanobu Watanabe said of the 17-year hurler. “But he’s always good in big games such as the Japan Series and that comes from his past experience.”
If the Lions win the series it will be their first berth in the Japanese version of the Fall Classic since 2004, when the Saitama-based club defeated the Chunichi Dragons in seven games.
“We just play our ball as we’ve been playing,” Watanabe said of his team’s checkmate for the NPB championship.
The Lions also snapped an eight-game losing streak at Seibu Dome.
“Toward the end of the season, a lot of fans came here but we struggled to give them a win. But I’m relieved we won one for the first time in a while,” the first-year manager said. “I hope we win tomorrow and make them happier.”
The Lions, who had been stifled by the Fighters pitchers in the previous two contests, finally restored the powerful offensive attack and got off to a vigorous start from the initial frame.
Hiroyuki Nakajima opened the first-inning surge on a line-drive RBI single and Yoshihito Ishii followed, driving in two more runs on a double off Fighters starter Brian Sweeney.
Seibu had some luck as well and added one more run on Hiroyuki Oshima’s Texas bloopper, raising the lead to 4-0.
After making it 5-0, catcher Toru Hosokawa bashed Sweeney’s outside fastball for a two-run dinger to make it 7-0 in the third.
Both Yoshihito Ishii, the No. 5 hitter in the lineup in this game, and Shogo Akada went 3-for-4. Ishii had two RBIs and Akada drove in a run, leading Seibu’s 15-hit offense.
“We scored runs early on and throughout the game, and we could play at our pace,” Watanabe said. “I was also pleased that we added some runs later in it.”
Yasuyuki Kataoka and Taketoshi Goto had two hits apiece as well. All the Lions starting fielders had at least a hit.
The 35-year-old Ishii had a stellar outing for Seibu, but it started off a bit shaky for the veteran. He walked two batters in the first. But from the second on, he found his zone and just gave the Fighters hitters humiliation by fanning them.
For him, the highlights came in the fourth and fifth. Ishii, who effectively had command of his curveball, slider, cutter and forkball and fired his fastballs low, struck out five of the six batters, including four in a row from the beginning of the fourth (Shinji Takahashi, Terrmel Sledge, Eiichi Koyano and Jason Botts).
The Fighters began their rally in the seventh. Two men came home on a Hichori Morimoto RBI single and an error by center fielder Akada), catcher Shinya Tsuruoka added another on his RBI single in the top of the seventh.
Seibu scored a run on an RBI single by designated hitter Goto in the bottom half, and Akada belted a solo shot in the eighth to make it 9-3.
Botts was 3-for-4 with a ninth-inning solo blast. Morimoto and Tsuruoka had two hits each.
Sweeney, who was 12-5 with a 3.48 ERA in the season, lasted just three innings, giving up 10 hits and seven runs with 58 pitches in his first start of the 2008 postseason.
Game 5 will be played at 6:15 p.m. on Wednesday at Seibu Dome. Seibu sends Hideaki Wakui to the mound, while Ryan Glynn will start for the Fighters.