Lions rally past Fighters to grab opening victory

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The Lions offense came through late. And their rally was well deserved in the end.

Hideto Asamura drove in a game-tying run in the bottom of the ninth, and designated hitter Jose Fernandez came up with a go-ahead two-run single in the 11th as the Seibu Lions downed the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters 5-2 in Game 1 of the Pacific League Climax Series first stage in front of a full-house crowd of 42,063 at Sapporo Dome on Saturday afternoon.

“It was a great game,” Fernandez said after the game. “Guys were patient. Every time you take the first win, and it’s a short series, it’s huge.”

Seibu is now one win away from clinching a second-stage berth against the pennant-winning Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.

Nippon Ham got off to a hot start as it gave starter Yu Darvish a 2-0 lead on consecutive RBI hits by Eiichi Koyano and Atsunori Inaba off Seibu’s Hideaki Wakui in the first.

But the Fighters offense kept coming up short afterwards, failing to put more runs on the scoreboard the rest of the way, including the sixth, in which they had runners on first and third with no outs but ended up with nothing.

Nippon Ham skipper Masataka Nashida decided to take Darvish from the mound after the seventh, in which he allowed a run on a Fernandez RBI hit, and had setup man Hirotoshi Masui and closer Hisashi Takeda relieve in the last two innings. But the winning formula didn’t work out this time, as Takeda allowed Seibu to tie the game at 2-all with a two-out RBI hit by Asamura.

Afterward, the Lions completely took the momentum. In the 11th, they got game-winning runs on Fernandez’s RBI hit and added another on a sac fly by Takanori Hoshi, both off reliever Ryo Sakakibara (0-1).

“I knew that was the situation that was on the line,” said Fernandez, who went 4-or-5 with three RBIs. “I tried to stay patient, just tried to hit up the middle.”

Lions manager Hisanobu Watanabe certainly looked satisfied to take the first game.

“We didn’t want to have to chase from the behind,” Watanabe said. “Because Darvish is type of the pitcher that gets better and better as the game wears on.

“But we gave up the lead to them and struggled to get on top of him. Yet we stayed patient and tied the game like we did late in the season.”

Behind the Lions offensive rally, meanwhile, Seibu’s six relievers deserved credit too, allowing no hits and no runs after Wakui left the hill in the middle of the sixth inning. Submarine rookie right-hander Kazuhisa Makita (1-0) pitched the final two innings and earned the win.

“I don’t think we would have taken the game had we given up one more run (after allowing the two runs to the Fighters),” Watanabe said. “I tip my hat to the pitching staff. They contributed, for sure.”

Meanwhile, Nashida was asked why he didn’t let Darvish pitch further innings.

“We believe in Masui and Hisashi,” he said. “So I didn’t hesitate at all. We had told Darvish that we’d switch him around 100 pitches, because there’s still a way to go (in the postseason).”

Darvish said the decision wasn’t his to make.

“I can say nothing about it. I think the team made it based on tactics,” said Darvish, who gave up one run and four hits.

The Nos. 6 to 9 batters on the Fighters starting lineup helped Seibu and choked their own team’s neck. Sho Nakata, Bobby Scales, Makoto Kaneko and Shota Ono went 0-for-14 combined.

For Seibu, Hiroyuki Nakajima had two hits and scored three runs.

“Obviously, we’ve only got a maximum of three games,” Watanabe said. “So having taken the first game is huge. But tomorrow’s game is another game. We want to go get it tomorrow.”

Game 2 begins at 2 p.m. at Sapporo Dome. Veteran Fumiya Nishiguchi will take the mound for Seibu, while lefty Masaru Takeda starts for the Fighters.