SAPPORO - Sushi time couldn’t have come at a better time for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
Brandon Laird broke an eighth-inning tie with a two-run home run to help the Fighters pull even in the Japan Series with a 3-1 win over the Hiroshima Carp in Game 4 on Wednesday night at Sapporo Dome in front of a crowd of 40,599.
“You’ve only got three more games no matter what,” said Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama. “It’s been a long season up to this point, and we feel happy to have played until snow fell.
“We want to play without leaving any regrets and we’ll play our best in order to win. We are going to do what we can to give ourselves the best chance.”
The Fighters evened the series at 2-2 and are assured of heading back to Hiroshima with the Carp for a Game 6. Before that, the teams will play Game 5 on Thursday at Sapporo Dome. The Fighters will send Takayuki Kato to the mound against Game 1 winner and Sawamura Award recipient Kris Johnson of the Carp.
“We’re evened up now,” Laird said. It’s like the start of a new series. We were down 2-0, and we bounced back. That shows that we don’t give up. We fight. Tomorrow is going to be huge. It’ll be great to get a win and have all the momentum going back to their place. Hopefully we can do that.”
Hiroshima didn’t go down without a fight. The Central League champions loaded the bases with two outs in the top of the ninth, but Naoki Miyanishi struck out Yoshihiro Maru to end it.
“The series is tied,” said Carp manager Koichi Ogata. “We’re just going to play as best as we can and win tomorrow and go back to Hiroshima.”
Laird had been overdue. The Fighters slugger, who won the Pacific League home run title this season with 39, went deep in Game 1, but managed only a single in his next 11 at-bats, including Wednesday’s game.
“I felt like I’ve had some good at-bats, just missing some pitches,” Laird said. “That’s going to happen. I just gotta forget about it and take every at-bat as a new at-bat. I feel like I had a good at-bat that last at-bat, and I got a good pitch I could hit and I just told myself, ‘don’t miss it,’ and it felt good.”
He was 0-for-3 when he stepped to the plate against Carp reliever Jay Jackson with two outs and a runner on first. Laird was behind 1-2 in the count before connecting on a 139 kph slider that he sent beyond the wall in center field.
“I just said, ‘get a good pitch you can hit,'” Laird said of the at-bat. “I know he likes to go to the slider when he gets in a little jam, and he left it over the plate. I feel like that was the pitch I’d been missing the last few days. To finally hit it, and in a big situation, was great.”
The outfielder, famous for his sushi celebration after home runs, has a pair of homers and three RBIs in the series. He performed his sushi pose during the hero interview to the delight of the fans.
Keisuke Tanimoto pitched an inning of relief to earn the win for the Fighters. Miyanishi was credited with a save. Jackson was charged with the loss.
It was the second time in as many nights the Fighters managed to rally against Jackson. They were down 2-1 in the eighth inning of Game 3, when Sho Nakata hit a tying double off the Carp reliever.
Nakata did his damage earlier Wednesday, connecting on a game-tying solo homer in the sixth inning against Akitake Okada.
“My location was off,” Okada said. “I should’ve thrown it lower.”
A matchup of starting pitchers eligible for the Rookie of the Year Award in their respective leagues ended with neither factoring in the decision. The Fighters’ Hirotoshi Takanashi, who was 8-0 as a starter during the regular season (and 2-2 in relief), worked five innings and allowed only an unearned run on an error in the outfield.
“He struggled in the Climax Series and I assumed he had a chip on his shoulder,” Kuriyama said. “But he allowed just one run and that’s going to give him a lot of confidence.”
The Carp’s Okada was on the mound for six and gave up only Nakata’s home run.
“I was a little stiff early, as I expected,” Okada said. “But I overcame it and was able to pitch well, giving up just the one run.”
The Carp scored their first run before getting their first hit.
Takahiro Arai drew a walk with one out in the fourth, and Seiya Suzuki flew out to center. Brad Eldred stepped to the plate with two outs and hit a high fly ball that should’ve been an easy out. The Fighters outfielders misplayed it and allowed it to drop, and Arai hustled home to score the first run of the game. The play was ruled an error on right fielder Keisuke Kondo.
Eldred finished the game with a single in four at-bats, missing the chance to become the first player to homer in four consecutive Japan Series contests.
The Carp made a defensive replacement to start the sixth, brining in Takayoshi Noma to play left. He got to watch the ball fly over his head as Nakata tied the score with his solo homer.
Nakata drew a one-out walk in the eighth and scored on Laird’s blast later in the inning.
Hiroshima’s Tubasa Aizawa drew a two-out walk in the ninth, and Kosuke Tanaka and Ryosuke Kikuchi singled to load the bases. Maru managed to work the count full against Miyanishi, but went down swinging at a 119 kph slider.
“I was talking to myself, I was just saying ‘please, right here Miyanishi. Make a pitch right here,’ Laird said. “Maru is a good hitter. A 3-2 count, bases loaded and Miyanishi made a great pitch.”
Staff Writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.