Surging Lions eliminate Fighters from title chase


Staff Writer

After all was said and done, this weekend completely reflected the way both teams played toward the end of the pennant race.

The Seibu Lions maintained their momentum from their surge late in the regular-season surge, while Hokkaido Nippon Ham failed to regain its top form from early in 2011.

Seibu again made a late offensive surge, scoring seven runs in the last two frames, and the Lions completed a two-game sweep of the Fighters with an 8-1 victory in Game 2 of the Pacific League Climax Series first stage on Sunday.

“I’m feeling our team’s potential,” Seibu skipper Hisanobu Watanabe said after the game that was seen by 41,926 fans at Sapporo Dome. “We played a series of tough games like this toward the end of the season. And our players made growth every game.”

The Lions, who clinched the third spot of the PLCS in the final day of the PL regular season, are now headed south across the nation to Kyushu to face the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, the PL champion, in the final stage, which begins on Thursday at Yahoo Dome.

The game was another tough pitching duel, at least for most of it. Veteran starters Fumiya Nishiguchi of Seibu and Masaru Takeda of the Fighters had solid, patient outings.

Designated hitter Micah Hoffpauir launched a high-flying solo shot into the right-field stands to give Takeda a 1-0 lead in the fourth. But Seibu quickly tied it on rookie Shogo Akiyama’s RBI single in the fifth.

Seibu broke the deadlock in the eighth in an unexpected way. With runners on first and second and two outs, Fighters setup man Hirotoshi Masui appeared to have retired PL home run king Takeya Nakamura without any damage being done. Nakamura connected a pitch nicely for a line drive to second, for what would’ve been the third out. Instead, second baseman Kensuke Tanaka, a five-time Golden Glove winner, juggled it for an error, to allow the Akiyama, the runner at second base, to come home.

The Lions offense assaulted Nippon Ham’s relievers in the ninth, scoring six runs on six hits, including Nakamura’s three-run homer, to seal the win.

On the mound, Nishiguchi did the job that Watanabe expected him to do. The 39-year-old (1-0) worked seven-plus innings, giving up six hits and a run on 104 pitches, for his first Climax Series win.

“We won yesterday, so I went out there, thinking we can afford to play another (game) tomorrow,” Nishiguchi said with a smile. “But as I actually got on the mound, I started thinking I wanted to win. After we tied it, I’ve got to be able to pitch my own game. I’m relieved to have won.”

Takeda, a southpaw, allowed a run and five hits in five innings. Yuya Ishii (0-1) got the loss for Nippon Ham.

“I tried to go as far as I could,” said Takeda, an 11-game winner of the season. “I think I could perform my game and there’s no regret.”

Seibu rapped out 13 hits. Takumi Kuriyama was 3-for-5 and Fernandez had two doubles.

Watanabe said that his team entered the postseason in a completely different way from last fall’s team, when Seibu was swept by the eventual Japan Series champion Chiba Lotte Marines at home.

“Last year, we played the Climax Series when we were down as we missed the pennant,” he said. “This year, we rolled into the Climax Series.”

The Fighters didn’t struggled, paticularly offensively. For instance, they had runners on first and third with none outs in Games 1 and 2, but on both occasions they failed to score runs.

“It would’ve been different had we scored one more run,” said Fighters manager Masataka Nashida, whose tenure with the team ended with the loss.

Fighters captain Atsunori Inaba admitted that the Lions were a better team in the series.

“We pretty much showed who we were in the end of the season,” the 39-year-old veteran said.

The Fighters, who competed closely with the Hawks for the pennant in the first half of the season, went 11-26-2 from Sept. 1 to close out the regular season, while Seibu was 26-10-4.

“But this is our ability for now,” Inaba said. “As we’ve played these two games, I think the Lions were a better team.”

Meanwhile, pursued the Fighters’ mighty ace pitcher, Yu Darvish, a target of speculation to go to the majors through the posting system, to get comments about his future plans.

But he didn’t offer many words and quickly got in a car.

“It was a good season,” said Darvish, who had a career-best 18-win season. “. . .(But) there’s nothing I can comment on for now.”