SAPPORO – Through out after out and missed opportunity after missed opportunity, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ resolve never wavered.
When one final chance rolled around — more than four hours after the most important game of their season had begun — the Fighters were finally ready to take advantage.
Yuji Iiyama hit a sayonara double to left in the bottom of the 12th, and the Fighters edged the Yomiuri Giants 1-0 in Game 4 of the Japan Series on Wednesday night at Sapporo Dome.
“We used all our players and it was a very tough game, but Iiyama finally came through for us in the end,” Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama said. “It was good he ended it, as I think everyone was getting tired.”
The win evens the series at two games apiece and means there will be a Game 6 Saturday night at Tokyo Dome.
“We failed to come through when we needed it,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said. “It makes the series 2-2, so we’ll start over.”
Iiyama’s hit ended a game that lasted 4 hours and 15 minutes and entered the bottom of the 12th tied 0-0.
“Baseball is very difficult to explain,” Kuriyama said. “Watching from the bench, I kept hoping something would happen, and finally it did.”
Fighters third baseman Eiichi Koyano led off the bottom of the 12th with a single, but reliever Kentaro Nishimura threw him out at second on Takuya Nakashima’s sacrifice bunt attempt. The next batter, Shota Ono, got a bunt down which Nishimura fielded, but second baseman Daisuke Fujimura, covering first, couldn’t handle the throw, leaving runners safe on first and second.
“The Giants’ error seemed to change the mood,” Iiyama said.
That set the stage for Iiyama and he didn’t disappoint, lining a double into left that sent his teammates sprinting onto the field in celebration.
“I knew this was my chance with a runner in scoring position and only one out,” Iiyama said. “I just tried to make contact, and I was able to hit one between the fielders. Then I knew we had won.”
The Fighters veteran initially didn’t think he’d get the chance to be the hero.
“I thought over a lot of things, like maybe it’s better if Daikan (Yoh) hits, because there was a higher probability he would get a hit, and I thought maybe the bench would give me the sign for the sacrifice bunt,” Iiyama said. “But the bench gave me the green light, so I made up my mind to get a hit.”
The contest began as a pitcher’s duel between young Nippon Ham Fighters hurler Masaru Nakamura and Yomiuri’s Ryosuke Miyaguni, who both far exceeded expectations on the mound.
Nakamura was dubbed the “Darvish of Saitama” by the media coming out of high school and bears a striking resemblance to former Fighters star Yu Darvish both in appearance and pitching motion.
The 21-year-old did one of his best Darvish impersonations against the Giants in Game 4.
“I allowed leadoff runners a few times, but overall I was able to stand up to the opposition,” Nakamura said.
He was shaky early, but mixed his fastball with a good shuuto and really had his curveball working, dropping in a few sub-90-kph hooks, as he kept the Giants off the scoreboard. He threw 77 pitches, struck out three and walked none. Nakamura allowed five hits in seven scoreless innings.
“I caused a pinch early, but after I got (out) of it and was able to establish a rhythm, I could pitch to (catcher Shinya) Tsuruoka’s signs,” said Nakamura.
Miyaguni was just as good for the Giants. Also making his Japan Series debut, the 20-year-old Okinawan gave up three hits over seven scoreless innings, striking out four and walking two on 100 pitches.
“I couldn’t believe I was on the mound in the Japan Series,” Miyaguni said. “But I was able to keep my cool and pitch at a good tempo as I usually do. (Kazunari) Sanematsu did a good job leading me.”
The Fighters blew a number of chances, but played well behind Nakamura to keep the game tied.
“We could’ve played better,” Kuriyama said. “We struggled to get runners on base. Obviously even if we’d lost today, it wouldn’t been over, but it would’ve put us in a real bad situation.
“However our pitchers, including the relievers, did a good job. Masaru hung in there. This game really symbolizes how we’ve played this year. Playing patiently around our pitching and defense.”
The Giants were without captain Shinnosuke Abe after the catcher reported feeling discomfort in his right leg during the fifth inning of Game 3. He was replaced by Sanematsu leaving the Kyojin without their biggest offense weapon.
Hisayoshi Chono was the only Yomiuri player to register a multi-hit night, finishing 2-for-5. Hayato Sakamoto, Kenji Yano and Sanematsu also recorded hits.
Before heading back to Tokyo, the two teams will meet in a pivotal Game 5 at Sapporo Dome on Thursday night, with the victor taking a 3-2 lead in the series.
“We’re back to square one,” Kuriyama said. “It is now a best-of-three series. We’re starting all over. Thanks to our fans for staying with us during this very long and grueling game.”