SENDAI - Takahiro Norimoto gave his best Masahiro Tanaka impression with a forkball that was working all night and a variety of other pitches that looked just as sharp.
The rookie only made a few mistakes on the night, but when he did, the Yomiuri Giants were there to take advantage.
Hisayoshi Chono singled in a run in the fifth inning, Shuichi Murata added some insurance with a solo home run in the eighth, and the Giants held on for a tightly contested 2-0 win over the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in Game 1 of the Japan Series on Saturday night at Kleenex Stadium.
“The Japan Series is a showdown of league champions, so the games should all be close and exciting and not decided until the last out,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said. “It was a nail-biter.”
Rakuten may have lost in its first-ever appearance in the Japanese Fall Classic, but the Eagles didn’t go quietly.
“We had a lot of chances,” Rakuten third baseman Casey McGehee said. “We had a lot of chances to score and hit some balls at (their) guys with guys on base. It’s Game 1 of seven. All it means is we’re not going to sweep.”
Giants outfielder Yoshiyuki Kamei had to make a highlight-worthy leaping grab at the wall to retire Kazuo Matsui with runners on first and second with two outs in the eighth, and the Eagles were putting together another rally in the ninth, getting the potential game-winning run to the plate, before Yomiuri reliever Kentaro Nishimura closed things out.
The Giants weren’t able to muster much in the way of offense, but didn’t need to with starter Tetsuya Utsumi and relievers Scott Mathieson, Tetsuya Yamaguchi and Nishimura combining on a nine-hit shutout.
Utsumi, last year’s Japan Series MVP, did the heavy lifting for six innings, holding the Eagles to six hits, while striking out three and walking two.
“I was shaky in the Climax Series, so I wanted to have a better outing today,” Utsumi said. “Norimoto was pitching much better than I was, but I tried to go all out, and it worked out for me.”
There may have been some surprise when Norimoto, and not Tanaka, was announced as the Game 1 starter, but the rookie put any unease to rest with a brilliant performance.
“I trust Norimoto with any game,” McGehee said. “He pitched plenty well enough to win, that’s for sure.”
Displaying the form that helped him win 15 games during the regular season, Norimoto held the Giants in check for much of the night, allowing a pair of runs on four hits, while striking out 10 and walking two over eight innings
“I was happy with my performance, but there are some things I have to reflect on, “Norimoto said. “I hope that I can continue to get better. Anyhow, I have to think about the best way to go about things next time.”
The rookie showed great command of his arsenal, particularly a forkball that kept the Giants off-balance.
“I was just following (catcher Motohiro) Shima’s lead today,” Norimoto said. “He came up with a great plan. I was really happy with my forkball. I was able to use it consistently and got strikeouts with it.”
The first run he gave up came in the fifth, when the Giants were able to put two runners on to start the frame, with a little help from an error by first baseman Ginji Akaminai. Chono came through with runners on the corners later in the inning to make the score 1-0.
“I was glad we put ourselves on the board first because Utsumi-san was hanging in there,” Chono said. “I thought that if I made contact something might happen.”
Murata gave the bullpen some breathing room later with his homer in the eighth.
The Giants took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
“It’s always important to win the first game, especially in the other team’s ballpark,” Hara said. “We will try to take a 2-0 lead tomorrow before we go back home to Tokyo.”
That might be easier said than done, with the Eagles sending ace pitcher Masahiro Tanaka to the mound in Game 2. Tanaka is 25-0 with a pair of saves this year (including the postseason). He won both his games against the Giants during interleague play.
“Even if it’s Tanaka, you can’t win with zero runs,” Eagles manager Senichi Hoshino said. “We need to score some runs.”
They had plenty of chances in Game 1.
The Eagles got their leadoff man on in six innings and also ended six frames with at least one runner in scoring position.
“Yeah, you want to get them in, but we had the chances,” McGehee said. “It’s more frustrating if you don’t have the chance. We keep giving ourselves chances, we’re going to get those balls to fall in, we’re going to get those hits. We wanted to come out and win the first game, but that’s what happens.”