For awhile it looked like the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks were going to run away with a win in the fourth game of this Japan Series.
Then the tide shifted, and the defending champions found themselves holding on for dear life as they edged one step closer to the finish line.
Lee Dae-ho drove in four runs, closer Dennis Sarfate stamped out a potential rally in the ninth and the Hawks moved to within one win of a second straight Japan Series title with a 6-4 win over the Tokyo Yakult Swallows on Wednesday night at Jingu Stadium.
“It was a nail biter at the end, but we came out on top,” Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo said. “Our players came through and now we can forget about last night’s loss.”
Softbank leads the series 3-1 and can wrap up the title with a victory in Game 5 on Thursday at Jingu. The first pitch is scheduled for 6:15 p.m. A Yakult win would force a Game 6 in Fukuoka on Saturday.
Lee was playing through neck pain, but was mostly a pain in the neck to the Swallows and their fans. He finished 3-for-4 with four RBIs.
“The hitters before Lee did a great job of getting on base, and he did the role of the cleanup hitter,” Kudo said. “I’m very proud of him.”
Lee has thrived in the cleanup role during the series. He was inserted there shortly before Game 1, after the team learned during batting practice that they would be playing with their captain and regular No. 4 hitter Seiichi Uchikawa. With Uchikawa out, Lee has gone 7-for-13 with a home run and six RBIs.
“Uchikawa suffered the injury while playing in a game (during the Pacific League Climax Series final stage), but we’re trying to play as one for him,” Lee said.
Yakult may have gone down on Wednesday, but the Central League champions didn’t go quietly.
The Hawks led by two runs entering the ninth and had to feel good with Sarfate, who finished tied for the most saves in Japan with 41 during the regular season, on the mound.
Sarfate retired Tsuyoshi Ueda easily enough, but allowed a hit against Shingo Kawabata. That brought Tetsuto Yamada to the plate as the potential tying run, just one day after his three-homer performance in Game 3. Sarfate won that tense seven-pitch battle when Yamada grounded out, but walked the next batter, Kazuhiro Hatakeyama.
The Hawks closer nailed down the save with a strikeout of Yuhei Takai.
The Swallows will be on the brink when the series resumes.
“Tateyama did not have his usual control tonight, and the walks got us in trouble,” Swallows manager Mitsuru Manaka said, referring to starting pitcher Shohei Tateyama, who took the loss.
“I was encouraged by (Wladimier) Balentien’s hitting and hope it continues tomorrow as it will be a game we cannot lose.”
While Lee did most of the damage, Hawks catcher Toru Hosokawa drove in a run with a double in the third and tacked on an insurance run with a solo homer in the sixth.
“Hosokawa hit one when we needed one,” Kudo said of the home run. “It was a valuable run.”
Tadashi Settsu was credited with the win despite being charged with four runs in five-plus innings. He left with the bases loaded, without getting an out, in the sixth and watched from the dugout as the Swallows put up three runs.
Yamada was considerably cooler than he was Tuesday night. He finished 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts.
“Yamada hit three home runs off our guys yesterday,” Kudo said. “So I’m glad they were able to contain him and the other Swallows hitters tonight.”
Balentien picked up his first two hits of the series and finished 2-for-4. Both of his hits helped lead to Yakult runs.
Tateyama didn’t have great command of his pitches on a night he needed to have everything working. He allowed five runs — four earned — in three innings. The Yakult veteran gave up four hits, struck out three and walked four.
Lee came up with runners on first and second in the first and singled to left to make the score 1-0.
“I want to thank the other hitters who set the table for me,” Lee said. “I’m glad I was able to do my job there.”
The Hawks put three on with no outs in the third, and Lee delivered again, clearing the bases with a three-run double. Hosokawa doubled in another run later in the inning to make the score 5-0.
“I felt I hit it well, but I thought it might be caught by the shortstop,” Lee said. “I was relieved when it went past him.”
Yakult loaded the bases with two away in the bottom half of the frame, but Settsu stamped out the brewing rally with a 2-2 sinker that Takai swung at and missed.
The Swallows finally did break through when Balentien scored on a fielder’s choice by Nakamura in the fourth.
The Hawks pushed the lead back to five on Hosokawa’s homer in the sixth.
The Swallows put up three runs in the sixth, but couldn’t get any closer.
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.