SAPPORO – The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters were struggling to score, trailing by a run and down to their last out in the seventh inning.
And they had the Hiroshima Carp right where they wanted them.
The Fighters tied the score in the seventh, and Haruki Nishikawa hit a sayonara grand slam that lifted them to a 5-1 win over the Carp on Thursday that brought the Fighters within a win of their first Japan Series title in a decade.
“I wasn’t sure if it was gone or not, but when I saw it go over the fence, I was extremely happy,” Nishikawa said.
The Fighters now lead the series 3-2 and will have two chances to win it in Hiroshima, the site for Game 6 and, if necessary, Game 7.
“It’s better to clinch a early as possible,” Nishikawa said. “Our preparation begins now.”
The club will have to reverse a trend in order to get it done. Since 2006, Nippon Ham is 2-9 on the road in Japan Series games. Pitcher Tomoya Yagi, who was traded away in 2013, got both wins, in 2006 and 2009.
This is also the first year since 2006 the Fighters find themselves one win away from the title.
“It feels similar to when we got our magic number (to win the Pacific League pennant) to one,” Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama said. “We’ll try to remained poised.”
Nippon Ham won all three games at Sapporo Dome and did so in dramatic fashion each time. The Fighters won Game 3 on Shohei Otani’s walk-off single in the 10th, and took Game 4 after Brandon Laird hit a tie-breaking two-run home run in the eighth.
They were down by a run in the seventh on Thursday, but tied the score on a gutsy call to send Kensuke Tanaka on a shallow sacrifice fly to center off the bat of Hiromi Oka.
Tanaka drew a one-out walk against the Carp’s Shota Nakazaki in the ninth. Tomoya Ichikawa moved him to second with a sacrifice bunt, and Tanaka was safe at third when Takuya Nakashima legged out an infield hit. That brought Nishikawa, who was 0-for-4 at point, to the plate. He swung at the second pitch he saw and sent a 1-0 fastball hurtling toward the seats in right as most of the 40,633 in attendance erupted at Sapporo Dome.
“I was so moved,” Kuriyama said. “I thought it was gone the moment he hit it. I just wasn’t sure how far it would go.
“But that moment was created by the whole team. We put our energy into Haruki, and he took advantage of it.”
Nishikawa’s grand slam was the first in the Japan Series since 2005, when the Chiba Lotte Marines’ Kazuya Fukuura drove in four with one swing against the Hanshin Tigers.
The Fighters’ Anthony Bass threw a scoreless inning and earned his second win of the series in relief. Nakazaki was the losing pitcher.
Nippon Ham’s Luis Mendoza finished outside the decision, but it wasn’t because of a lack of effort. Mendoza took the ball when starter Takayuki Kato couldn’t get out of the second inning. He entered the game with the Fighters already down a run and the Carp with men on every base and only one out. Mendoza got out of the jam and went on to throw 5 2/3 scoreless innings of relief.
“I was just hoping to keep it a close game, because we’ve been scoring in the late innings,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza allowed one hit, struck out five and walked one.
“Mendoza pitched really well for us,” Kuriyama said. “That’s the image we have of him. He hasn’t really been able to pitch like that until now, but we certainly appreciated the performance he put forth today.”
Carp starter Kris Johnson, who was named the 2016 Sawamura Award recipient on Monday, did not factor into the decision despite throwing six scoreless innings. Johnson allowed four hits, struck out three and walked two on short rest and left with his team ahead by one run.
Hiroshima reliever Jay Jackson earned a measure of revenge against Nippon Ham during the game. Jackson, who gave up a game-tying double to Sho Nakata in the eighth inning of Game 3 and a tiebreaking home run to Brandon Laird in the eighth inning of Game 4, worked a scoreless eighth for Hiroshima in Game 5. Jackson struck out Shohei Otani and Nakata and retired Laird on a fly ball to left.
The Carp struck early in Game 5, taking a 1-0 lead on a single by Seiya Suzuki in the first inning.
Tetsuya Kokubo walked to begin the top of the second, and Ko Shimozuru nearly added two runs to Hiroshima’s lead, but settled for a double off the top of the wall. Kosuke Tanaka walked to load the bases, which was the end of Kato’s night. The Carp went away empty-handed after Mendoza got a ground ball out of Ryosuke Kikuchi, with Nippon Ham taking the out at home, and struck out Yoshihiro Maru. The Fighters were plagued by an inability to come up with a big hit with runners in scoring position early. The team was 0-for-8 with a runner on second or third until Nakashima singled with Tanaka on second in the seventh. That hit paid off as the Fighters scored the game-tying run later in that frame.
The Fighters had runners on the corners in the ninth, when Nakazaki hit Oka and players from both benches came onto the field. Neither side got close to the other and the situation diffused as quickly as it started.
Nakashima was on deck and just kept his focus on the task at hand.
“I was the next hitter, so I didn’t want to get involved and get to the batter’s box late,” he said. “I tried to remain as calm as possible when I stepped up to the plate.”
The Fighters were in a much better mood when rushed onto the field again after Nishikawa’s hit.
“It was a game that symbolized our season,” Kuriyama said. “Everyone played with patience and we ended up winning because of the whole team. We haven’t played the way we want to play yet, but you have to hang in there and win it with the cards you’re dealt. That’s important.”
The series heads back to Hiroshima’s Mazda Stadium, where the Fighters are expected to send ace Shohei Otani to the mound in Game 6 to try and secure the title.
“We haven’t decided that, but we’ll do our best no matter what,” Kuriyama said.
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.