TOKOROZAWA, SAITAMA PREF. – Zelous Wheeler hit the ball so hard it might’ve landed somewhere in Fukuoka. Which is convenient, since he’ll be able to stop by and pick it up on his way to the final stage of the Pacific League Climax Series.
Wheeler gave the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles the lead early and padded it late with a monster home run in the eighth inning, after his team’s bullpen had defanged the Seibu Lions’ offense, and the Eagles pulled off an upset in the first stage of the Climax Series with a clinching 5-2 win in Game 3 on Monday night at MetLife Dome in front of a crowd of 31,755.
“It’s a good feeling today,” Wheeler said. “This is a great group of guys. We’re on to the next series.”
The third-place Eagles won the series 2-1 and now advance to a matchup against the league champion Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in the PL Climax Series Final Stage. That best-of-seven series begins Wednesday night at Yafuoku Dome in Fukuoka. The Hawks will begin the series with an automatic 1-0 advantage as the league champion.
“It’s a real good challenge,” Wheeler said. “We’ve played Fukuoka pretty well. We’re looking forward to the matchup. We’ve got good pitchers, they’ve got good pitchers. We’ve got good hitters and they’ve got good hitters. They’re going to be great games. We’ll see who wins.”
It might be foolish to count out the Eagles after what they pulled off against the Lions in the first stage.
Seibu had won 12 of the teams’ previous 14 meetings, including a 10-0 rout in Game 1 of this series. Rakuten bounced back to win Game 2, and took a slim 2-1 lead on the scoreboard into the eighth inning on Monday night.
Wheeler came to the plate with two outs and connected on a shuuto from Lions reliever Brian Schlitter to make the score 3-1. He erupted in jubilation as the ball flew high over the wall in left field and let out a yell as he crossed home plate.
“I have passion everyday,” he said. “I play every game with passion.”
Wheeler, who drove in the first run of the game in the opening frame, was the big hero of the day, but the Rakuten bullpen will go home with a lot of the credit as well.
Eagles starter Manabu Mima went 4⅔ innings before Yuhei Takanashi, Sung Chia-hao, who won in relief, Frank Herrmann, Hiroyuki Fukuyama and Yuki Matsui limited the Lions to just one run and three hits the rest of the way.
“If you look at the beginning of our season, we would get a lead early and then we’d go 7-8-9 and we would shut teams out and win a lot of close games,” Herrmann said. “So we knew we had it in us.
“In the middle of the year, our hitting kind of carried us a little bit, but we got back to our formula in the playoffs. You see that in the U.S. too, the teams with the good bullpens really kind of carry through the playoffs.”
The Eagles finished the game with seven hits, three each from Wheeler and Shintaro Masuda, who hit a two-run home run in the eighth inning.
“We executed our bunts, and we hit some home runs to put together the three-run inning toward the end,” manager Masataka Nashida said.
Wheeler was all over the place for Rakuten.
He drove in the first run of the game with an infield single in the first inning. He then singled up the middle to begin the top of the fourth and moved up a base after Takehiro Okajima laid down a sacrifice. The 100-kg infielder then showed off his wheels, racing home from second to score on a wild pitch by Ryoma Nogami (the losing pitcher, who allowed two runs in 3⅔ frames) with Masuda at the plate.
“On my way to third, I saw he (catcher Ginjiro Sumitani) didn’t know where the ball was,” Wheeler said. “So I decided to just be aggressive and go.”
The play gave the Eagles an early surge of momentum.
“He did a good job coming home from second base,” Nashida said. “When Wheeler does something, it gives energy to the entire team.”
The Lions didn’t get on the board until the fifth. With runners on second and third, Sumitani lifted a ball into right field for a sacrifice fly to make the score 2-1.
That’s how the game remained before Rakuten put three on the board in the eighth.
Seibu captain Hideto Asamura kept the Lions’ faint hopes alive with a leadoff homer in the ninth, but Matsui shut the door on Seibu’s season a few batters later.
“It was an interesting game,” Nashida said. “Everyone played as hard as they could.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.
BayStars at Tigers — ppd.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.