FUKUOKA – Kenichi Nakata threw five innings of two-run ball, Nobuhiro Matsuda delivered a two-run single in a 4-for-4 outing, and the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks beat the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters 5-2 to win Game 4 of the Pacific League Climax Series Final Stage on Saturday afternoon.
The Hawks, who received an automatic one-win advantage in the series as the PL champions, lead the series 3-2 and moved one win away from clinching a berth in the Japan Series for the first time since winning it all in 2011.
Softbank got off on the right foot with Yuki Yanagita’s home run in the bottom of the first.
“The home run by Yanagita was big, so was Matsuda’s hit in the third. We kept moving forward today and that turned out well. We’ll be back tomorrow. It’s one game at a time,” said outgoing Hawks skipper Koji Akiyama.
Yanagita latched onto a 2-1 fastball for a bullet that just cleared the wall in right for a 1-0 lead in front of a crowd of 31,647 at Yafuoku Dome.
Nakata fell into trouble in the top of the second when he loaded the bases on three consecutive walks with one out. He was lucky to keep the damage to a minimum though, only allowing Shota Ono’s game-tying RBI single before retiring the next two batters to escape the jam.
Softbank regained the lead in the home half of the inning. Matsuda had a leadoff double and moved to third on a sacrifice bunt before Yuki Yoshimura hit a sharp groundball single past diving third baseman Kensuke Kondo for a 2-1 lead.
Nippon Ham got out of the inning when Kenta Imamiya hit into a 4-6-3 inning-ending double play, but that was the end of the day for Fighters starter Hiroshi Kisanuki.
“When I got the hit I naturally pumped my fist. I was very happy. We had more fans out today than the previous games but hopefully it will be packed tomorrow,” Yoshimura said in the post-game interview.
In the third, Luis Mendoza took over in relief and got two quick outs, only to yield back-to-back singles to Kenji Akashi and Seiichi Uchikawa before walking Lee Dae-ho to load the bases. Matsuda then drilled a groundball single up the middle to push across two runs for a 4-1 lead.
“My teammates got on base and set the stage. I was waiting for a fastball. You never know what’s going to happen but I wanted to be aggressive in the at-bat. In this short series it’s better to be ahead in the count than fall behind,” said Matsuda, who connected on Mendoza’s first offering.
“In the CS you feel more pressure when you’re on defense than when you’re batting. If you make one mistake on defense it could cost you the game. The main thing was we had to win today or they would have been the ones a win away from clinching instead of us.”
Nakata found himself up against the wall more than a few times but wiggled free. He struck out three in a row in the third and retired the next three he faced before allowing an RBI grounder by Daikan Yoh in the fifth.
Ono drew a fifth-inning leadoff walk and Haruki Nishikawa singled to center. The runners advanced to second and third on Takuya Nakashima’s sacrifice bunt before Yang grounded to shortstop to score Ono.
Nakata walked Sho Nakata to put runners at the corners, but the crowd erupted in boisterous cheers when the righty struck out Eiichi Koyano swinging at a forkball for the third out.
Mendoza juiced the bases again in the fifth with one out, but didn’t allow a run. Akira Nakamura was walked intentionally with first base open, and Yoshimura hit into a 5-3 double play to end the threat.
Hawks lefty Hideki Okajima took over from the sixth and allowed two runners after getting two outs. Masahiko Morifuku relieved his teammate, walked Nishikawa for another bases-loaded jam before fanning Nakashima on a slider low and outside, sending the crowd into another jubilant uproar.
Softbank added a run in the seventh on Lee’s sacrifice fly to right.
You could hear the wheels slowly slipping off for the Fighters bullpen, which dispatched three relievers to get through the seventh alone and continued to have control issues.
Yoh, who got hot with two homers and five RBIs on Friday night, was back in the freezer; he went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts. Sho Nakata, who had homered in four straight postseason games, was hitless with two strikeouts. The Hawks outhit their opponents 13-4.
“They don’t allow us to win easily, that’s for sure,” said Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama. “If we can take Game 5, we have two games to play. That’s it. If we win and can stick it out until the end, something could happen.”
Akiyama tweaked his lineup and it appeared to pay off.
Akashi, who went 3-for-5 and scored twice, had batted ninth in the previous three games but moved up to the No. 2 spot while Imamiya dropped to eighth.
Shohei Otani, Nippon Ham’s designated hitter in the first three games here, did not play Saturday. The double-duty man will start on the hill in Game 5 on Sunday.
“It’ll be an important game. I want to set the pace for us and get the team on the right track,” Otani said after throwing a bullpen session earlier in the day.
Should the Fighters win Game 5, a decisive Game 6 will be played in Fukuoka on Monday night. The Hawks will advance with either a win or a tie.