FUKUOKA – Sho Nakata hit a game-tying solo homer in the eighth inning and Takuya Nakashima broke the balance with a two-run single in the top of the 11th as the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters beat the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks 6-4 in Game 5 of the Pacific League Climax Series Final Stage on Sunday.
With the victory, the third-place Fighters evened the series at 3-3 and forced a Game 6 on Monday night against the Hawks, who had received a one-win advantage as the PL champions.
“I am glad they fought until the end. We wanted to play a game tomorrow. If we win we move on, if we lose it’s over. I’ll put my trust in my players,” said Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama.
Juan Miranda drew a leadoff walk to start the 11th and after Kensuke Kondo popped out on a failed bunt attempt, pinch hitter Yuya Taniguchi and Shota Ono reached on back-to-back infield singles to load the bases against reliever Dennis Sarfate.
Nakashima drilled a hit to right to knock in two runs, giving the Fighters the lead and a lifeline to fight another day.
“I was able to get a hit. I hadn’t been hitting at all today and yesterday,” Nakashima said. “I had to come through for us in that situation. I’m glad I could decide it. Tomorrow we will fight as a team to win one more so we can reach the Japan Series.”
Former Baltimore Orioles righty Sarfate, who went 7-1 with 37 saves during the regular season, chalked off the loss.
“I take this one game at a time, not like it’s the playoffs. It could be the first game, or last of the season,” Sarfate said.
Hawks starter Jason Standridge had outdueled Shohei Otani through six innings, but the Fighters rallied late to make what appeared to be a blowout into a worthy contest.
Yuki Yoshimura delivered a two-run double in a four-run second as the Hawks got flying out of the gate in front of a weekend crowd of 34,070 at Yafuoku Dome.
Otani was shaken up early in the lone hiccup in what was mainly a strong effort from the righty.
He retired the first three batters he faced with no hassles, but the Hawks figured out the 20-year-old flamethrower after that first peak.
Jumping on Otani early in the count proved to be key. It didn’t last long, but one bad inning was enough to put the Fighters behind the eight ball, with Otani’s fastballs running inside on right-handed hitters walloped into left field.
Lee Dae-ho and Nobuhiro Matsuda hit back-to-back line drives and left-hander Akira Nakamura was hit by a pitch while trying to advance the runners on a bunt.
With the bases loaded and none out, Yoshimura then smacked a first-pitch fastball that ran in on his hands down the left-field line to score two runs.
Kenta Imamiya followed with a run-scoring single to left and Yuki Yanagita added an RBI grounder for the fourth run.
“I regret forcing him to pitch today. He had control problems and was obviously tired,” Kuriyama said of Otani, who had batted as the designated hitter in the first three games of the series.
The Hawks’ defense was spot-on through the first six. Right-fielder Nakamura made an acrobatic catch on the wall on Haruki Nishikawa’s liner for the third out of the fifth with runners on first and second.
But the Fighters made it close when they took advantage of a lapse from the Hawks bullpen in the seventh.
Standridge allowed just three singles, struck out four and walked two. Otani yielded four runs on six hits while striking out 12 in seven innings.
“I wanted to pitch as deep into the game as possible. I gave up those four runs early, but I was glad I didn’t allow them any more runs,” Otani said.
Yuito Mori, who took over the Hawks’ relief from the seventh, allowed two-out singles to Kondo and pinch hitter Atsunori Inaba. Ono then hit a two-run double to right-center to move Nippon Ham within two.
Lefty Masahiko Morifuku was dispatched to get the third out but instead surrendered a drive to Nishikawa that had home run written all over it.
The hit to right would have tied the game, but umpires ruled after reviewing video replay that it bounced off the top of the fence for an RBI triple.
That turned out to be of little consequence after Nakata, who homered in the first three games of this series, belted a one-out blast off reliever Ryota Igarashi to tie it at four in the eighth.
The Hawks are seeking their first trip to the Japan Series since winning the title in 2011. Nippon Ham was in the series two years ago.
“That’s baseball. Many things happen in a short series. It was a waste they scored on us with two outs in the seventh. Tomorrow everyone will fight until the end,” said outgoing Hawks manager Koji Akiyama.