Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Fighters rally to down Hawks, punch ticket to Japan Series

Kyodo

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters overcame a first-inning four-run deficit to reach the Japan Series on Sunday, defeating the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks 7-4 at Sapporo Dome in Game 5 of the Pacific League Climax Series Final Stage.

The Fighters will make their seventh appearance at the Japan Series — as are their series rival and Central League champion Hiroshima Carp — and will look to win the Nippon Professional Baseball championship for the first time since 2006 after losing the last three in 2007, 2009 and 2012.

“It was tough but the game today was typical of the Fighters, not one player giving up after going four runs down,” said skipper Hideki Kuriyama. “I believe everyone who came here today was moved but I was moved more than anyone else.”

Cleanup hitter Sho Nakata, who went 3-for-3 with a walk, hit a solo homer in the second and Kenshi Sugiya singled in a run in the third off starter Tadashi Settsu before Nakata opened the decisive three-run fourth with a single off reliever Nao Higashihama.

Brandon Laird and Daikan Yoh both drew one-out walks to load the bases and pinch hitter Hiromi Oka tied the game with a two-run double to center to knock Higashihama off the mound.

Takuya Nakashima then gave the Fighters the lead, Yang coming home on a squeeze off the Hawks’ second reliever, Yuito Mori.

In the fifth, slugging flamethrower and designated hitter Shohei Otani hit a one-out single and Nakata followed with a double to set up Kensuke Kondo’s two-run double that completed the scoring.

Otani closed out the game, working a stunning 1-2-3 ninth after Kuriyama sent him to the mound.

Otani, who this season logged an NPB-record 164-kph pitch, rewrote his own mark by throwing three 165-kph pitches, while topping 150 kph with his forkballs.

“I just wanted him to win it for us,” said Kuriyama. “It ended with three batters but I was worried in many ways. The fans got him to pitch the way he did, just like they did in turning the game around.”

The Hawks had gotten off to a good start, scoring four runs off Takayuki Kato in the first inning. Akira Nakamura singled before an error and a walk from the lefty loaded the bases with one out. After scoring a run on a groundout, Nobuhiro Matsuda blasted over the left-field wall for what looked like a comfortable lead.

But the Hawks failed to add to the runs, Fighters reliever Anthony Bass letting just one runner reach in the second and third en route to picking up the win. Bass fanned three while allowing two hits and two walks over four innings.

Higashihama was tagged with the loss after allowing three runs on two hits and two walks while getting only one out.

“I’m disappointed we couldn’t add more runs. Nippon Ham was strong,” said SoftBank manager Kimiyasu Kudo. “We need to build a strong team and I hope we can make use of this experience for next season.”

Nippon Ham will travel to Hiroshima for the first two games of the Japan Series starting Saturday.