HIROSHIMA – The 2016 Japan Series got off to a wet start, but the Hiroshima Carp and their fans weren’t about to let a little rain, or Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ace Shohei Otani, ruin their fun.
Not when it took 25 years to get here again.
Seiya Suzuki scored on a double steal, Ryuhei Matsuyama and Brad Eldred homered, and left-hander Kris Johnson outdueled Otani to lead the Carp to a 5-1 win over the Fighters in Game 1 on Saturday night at Mazda Stadium.
“It was an important game and we were able to get the series off to a good start,” Carp manager Koichi Ogata said.
Hiroshima leads the best-of-seven series 1-0. The Carp were hosting a Japan Series game for the first time since beating the Seibu Lions in Game 5 of the 1991 Japanese Fall Classic.
The rain didn’t keep many fans away from the Carp’s return to the Japan Series. Many began arriving at the stadium hours before the first pitch and the announced attendance was 30,619.
Most of them went home happy.
“We’ve only got one win, but let’s win three more and become the best in Japan,” Matsuyama told the red-clad Carp supporters after the game.
Eldred drove in a pair of runs for Hiroshima and Yoshihiro Maru and Matsuyama finished with an RBI apiece. Maru and Tomohiro Abe each had two hits for the Carp, who led NPB in batting average and runs scored during the regular season.
Johnson, who won 15 games during the season and was the winner in Game 1 of the Central League Climax Series Final Stage, got the ball in Game 1 and allowed one run over 6 2/3 innings. Johnson struck out five and walked two. The Fighters had their chances against him early, but the left-hander held kept them in check.
Johnson gave up Brandon Laird’s solo homer in the seventh.
“He had some tough moments in the first three innings, but pitched with patience and wound up giving up just one run and gave us a chance to win the game,” Ogata said. “So it was a great performance by him.”
Otani’s first pitch in his first Japan Series was a 158-kph fastball and his first hit was a double that nearly made it over the fence in left-center. Those were the highlights on an uneven day for the right-hander who allowed three runs over six innings and didn’t look quite as sharp as normal.
“He throws a fastball nobody in the Central League throws,” Ogata said. “I told our players to be patient just like they were all year.”
Otani struck out 11 and walked four in a 113-pitch outing. He finished 2-for-3 at the plate, batting out of the eighth spot.
“It’s been awhile for him to have this kind of time,” Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama said. “It might have been a little frustrating.”
Otani entered the game having allowed just four home runs in 140 innings this year, including the postseason, but gave up two in the fourth inning on Friday. He hadn’t allowed two home runs in the same game, let alone the same inning, since Sept. 10, 2015, against the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.
“His pitches were really fast, I was surprised,” Matsuyama said.
Matsuyama also went deep off Otani during a game three years ago.
“One three years ago doesn’t count,” he said. “I just wanted to hit one today, and I’m glad I did that.”
The Fighters outhit the Carp 10-7 and had four players finish with at least two hits. They just couldn’t turn them into runs.
Suzuki walked to begin the second and advanced to third on a one-out single by Abe. Two attempts to bring him home with a squeeze play failed with Yoshiyuki Ishihara batting, but Suzuki crossed the plate on a double steal to score the first run of the inning as Ishihara struck out.
Matsuyama greeted Otani with a leadoff home run to right-center in the fourth to give Hiroshima a two-run advantage. Eldred added to the lead with a solo shot to center later in the inning.
The Fighters’ Brandon Laird cut into the lead with a solo homer in the seventh. Nippon Ham eventually put two runners on with two outs, chasing Johnson in the process. But reliever Takeru Imamura retired Hiromi Oka to preserve Hiroshima’s lead.
The Carp’s Kosuke Tanaka doubled off reliever Yuya Ishii to begin the seventh. Ryosuke Kikuchi moved Tanaka over with a sacrifice bunt and Maru drove him home with a run-scoring single. The Carp loaded the bases against reliever Anthony Bass later in the inning and added to their lead on a sacrifice fly by Eldred.
The team return to the field for Game 2 on Sunday. The Carp will send Yusuke Nomura to the mound to face the Fighters and their starting pitcher, Hirotoshi Masui.