Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Lions devour Eagles in Game 1

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

The NPB postseason began with the promise of a pitcher’s duel, with a pair of aces on the mound on a chilly Saturday afternoon in Saitama Prefecture.

Only one was able to hold up his end of the bargain.

Seibu Lions star pitcher Yusei Kikuchi threw a five-hit shutout in his first career playoff game, the Lions’ hitters pounced on Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles starter Takahiro Norimoto early, and the team came away with a dominating 10-0 victory in Game 1 of the Pacific League Climax Series First Stage in front of a crowd of 32,547 at MetLife Dome.

“I tried to not give up a single hit and win at any cost during the regular season, so I didn’t really have to change anything,” Kikuchi said. “I just tried to win by any means like I always have. I didn’t feel any nerves, I was excited to go to the mound.”

The Lions lead the best-of-three series 1-0 and can advance to a final-stage matchup against the Pacific League champion Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks with a victory in Game 2 on Sunday.

“We told ourselves we had three games, but there was no way we could’ve afforded to drop this first game with Kikuchi on the mound,” Lions manager Hatsuhiko Tsuji said.

In a contest featuring starters who finished the regular season with at least 15 wins and over 210 strikeouts, it was the Seibu hitters who took center stage instead.

Takeya Nakamura hit a three-run home run and finished with four RBIs, Hideto Asamura had a two-run homer, and Ginjiro Sumitani had a two-run double among his three hits. Pacific League batting champion Shogo Akiyama also drove in a run, as did rookie shortstop Sosuke Genda. All nine of Seibu’s starters reached base at least once. Only Shuta Tonosaki failed to record a hit.

“We had something like a 10-day layoff, but our offense got better as the series got closer,” Tsuji said.

Kikuchi notched his ninth victory in as many meetings against Rakuten this year, limiting the Eagles to four singles and a double. Kikuchi, who went 16-6 with 217 strikeouts during the regular season, struck out nine.

“If you let them make contact, anything can happen. So when I had runners on base, I went for strikeouts,” Kikuchi said.

As good as Kikuchi was, Tsuji felt he wasn’t exactly in perfect condition.

“His mechanics weren’t quite as sharp,” Tsuji said. “It was actually the case for Norimoto as well. He didn’t pitch as energetically as he usually does.”

Norimoto (15-7 with 222 strikeouts in 2017) had some of his worst outings of the season against Seibu, and the trend carried over into the Climax Series. He allowed seven runs (the most he’s given up this year after twice giving up six to Seibu during the regular season) on seven hits over four innings.

“I didn’t feel particularly bad on the mound, but I wasn’t accurate, and they were trying to make contact with my pitches,” Norimoto said. “I wasn’t able to adjust to that well enough. That’s all.”

Norimoto said he didn’t feel any pressure.

“It was such a big game and I pitched so poorly,” he said. “No matter how well you did during the season, if you can’t win a game like this, it doesn’t mean anything.”

Norimoto threw 105 pitches, but the Lions may not have seen the last of him.

“It depends on tomorrow’s game, but we’ll do whatever it takes to win,” said pitching coach Tsuyoshi Yoda.

Hiroaki Shimauchi had the Eagles’ lone extra-base hit, a double in the seventh.

“They came to play today,” Rakuten outfielder Carlos Peguero said. “We came to play too, but they took advantage of the situations and got some runs. We just have to wipe out this day and come in tomorrow ready to play.”

Seibu has owned Rakuten since the calendar flipped to August, going 11-1-1 over their final 13 meetings of the season. That played a big part in the Lions overtaking the Eagles for second place in the Pacific League and earning the right to host their first-stage series.

With their flag-waving fans behind them, the Lions took control early.

Seibu’s No. 2 batter Genda was hit with a pitch with one out in the first, which brought Asamura to the plate. The Lions captain put a charge into the crowd with a two-run homer to left.

The Lions broke the game open in the bottom of the third.

Nakamura made the score 3-0 with a sacrifice fly, and Sumitani followed with his two-run double. Akiyama and Genda each connected on an RBI single to put Seibu ahead by seven runs.

“We kept setting the table, and it gave our younger players room to breathe,” Tsuji said. “We joked that getting hit by that pitch gave Genda a chance to relax.”

Nakamura pushed the advantage to 10-0 with a three-run home run to left in the sixth.

The Lions will try to finish off the Eagles in Game 2 on Sunday with Ken Togame on the mound.

The Eagles will counter with a familiar face, giving former Lions ace Takayuki Kishi the start with their season on the line.

“We just have to take it one game at a time,” Zelous Wheeler said, “one inning at a time.”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.