TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. — The Saitama Seibu Lions went from a fifth-place team in 2007 to Japan Series champions in 2008.
Following a sixth-place finish last season, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks are determined to do the Lions one better this year.
D.J. Houlton overcame his past misery at Seibu Dome with eight strong innings of one-run ball, and Jose Ortiz and Hitoshi Tamura homered as the Hawks dealt a blow to the Lions’ playoff hopes with a 6-1 win on Saturday.
The Lions’ home stadium had been a personal house of horrors for Houlton, who was 0-2 with a 7.41 ERA in three games in Tokorozawa this season.
“I just tried to put it all behind me and tried to start over,” Houlton said. “Because, really, this has probably been the worst place for me to pitch.”
He turned things around in a big way, improving to 11-7 after striking out four and walking none against the powerful Seibu lineup.
“I felt good,” Houlton said. “I just went after those guys. I haven’t pitched well here at Seibu ever. I was just trying to start over and trying to pitch my game, be aggressive and hope for the best. The defense also played great, so it was nice.”
Ortiz went deep for the 18th time this season to tie the game in the third and Tamura put the contest away with a two-run blast in the sixth, his 17th.
“I’ve been struggling lately,” Ortiz said. “But I’ve been coming back and the team is doing good lately. We lost a couple games in a row but we’re coming back now.”
Munenori Kawasaki went 2-for-4 with an RBI and Kenji Akashi also drove in a run as the Hawks managed to stay within shouting distance of the Pacific League-leading Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
“We gotta win every game we can right now and try to get first place,” Houlton said. “They’re a great team too. It’s coming down to the wire. It’ll be really interesting and it’ll be close too. So it’ll be fun.”
Softbank has nearly assured itself the second slot in the upcoming Climax Series, but still has an outside shot at overtaking the Fighters for the top spot in the league and the first-round bye that comes with it.
The two teams meet for a crucial three-game set in Fukuoka beginning on Sept. 25, and square off again on Oct. 4 in Sapporo.
“Nippon Ham is a good team,” Ortiz said. “So we’re trying to win as many games as possible. So we have to play good baseball, win a lot of games and hopefully Nippon Ham loses some games and we can catch up.”
The most likely scenario for Fukuoka is a matchup in the first stage of the playoffs at home against the PL’s third-place team.
The Lions are hoping to be that team, but their chances took a hit with the loss. Seibu trails the third-place Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles by four games after the Sendai club increased its lead with a win over the Chiba Lotte Marines.
Starter Takayuki Kishi (12-4) dropped his second straight decision for the Lions, allowing five runs on six hits with one strikeout.
Seibu’s Taketoshi Goto brought the home crowd to its feet with a third-inning homer that gave the Lions a 1-0 advantage. The lead didn’t last for long as Ortiz answered with his game-tying homer in the next inning.
Yuya Hasegawa led off the fifth with a double and later scored on Akashi’s sacrifice fly.
Kawasaki hit an infield single and stole second to get things going for Softbank in the sixth. Hiroki Kokubo drove in the run with an RBI double to make the score 3-1. Tamura’s homer put two more runs on the board later in the inning.
The Hawks tacked on another run in the seventh on Kawasaki’s RBI single.
The two squads meet for the final game of their three-game set on Sunday at Seibu Dome. Toshiya Sugiuchi (15-3) is set to take mound for the Hawks, while Seibu will counter with Kazuhisa Ishii (8-8).
Visit The Japan Times’ Web site for a roundup of Saturday’s other Nippon Professional Baseball games.