TOKOROZAWA, SAITAMA PREF. - Many fans, of both the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and Seibu Lions, probably spent much of the third game of the first-round playoff series between the two teams waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Rakuten never let it happen.
The Eagles, underdogs in the Pacific League Climax Series First Stage, had just seen their two-run lead cut to one thanks to a sacrifice fly by Ginjiro Sumitani in the fifth, and starter Manabu Mima was headed to the showers.
Then with two outs and a runner on third, Rakuten rookie reliever Yuhei Takanashi, who was born less than an hour’s train ride from Seibu’s MetLife Dome, in nearby Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, struck out PL batting champion Shogo Akiyama to end the inning. From there, the Eagles bullpen held Seibu, which finished the regular season with the highest batting average (.264) and most runs scored (690) in the PL, to three hits and one run, playing a huge role in a series-clinching 5-2 victory in the decisive Game 3 on Monday night.
“Every pitch is important,” said Rakuten reliever Frank Herrmann. “They battled. That’s a very good team, a very good lineup. Everybody on that team can take you deep. They play really well in this building. Every pitch, you have to be locked in. They have guys who can steal (Seibu led NPB with 129 stolen bases), they have power, they’re a very good team. It was a tough series.”
Zelous Wheeler gave the Eagles the lead with an RBI single in the first and by scoring from second on a wild pitch in the fourth. He gave the relievers some breathing room with a solo homer in the eighth, and Shintaro Masuda connected on a two-run shot later in the same frame.
The Lions, who trailed 2-1 after the fifth, didn’t score again until Hideto Asamura took Yuki Matsui deep in the ninth.
As Rakuten tried to protect a slim advantage, manager Masataka Nashida dipped into his bullpen after Mima allowed the run in the fifth and with Akiyama, who had tripled off Mima in the first inning, coming to the plate with a runner on third.
“Mima had given up a hit against Akiyama and the game would’ve been tied if we’d given up another there,” Nashida said.
So Nashida entrusted the game, and the season, to his relievers.
After Takanashi retired Akiyama and walked the first batter in the sixth, Sung Chia-hao, who began the year as a developmental player, retired all three batters he faced, eventually earning the win in relief.
“They both pitched great,” Herrmann said. “They both made very key pitches. Sung did a great job. He got his first win and he deserved it. He really pitched great. It was a great team effort.”
Herrmann threw two-thirds of an inning, Hiroyuki Fukuyama tossed 1⅓, and Matsui closed it out in the ninth.
Wheeler was the star offensively, with a direct hand in three of the Eagles’ five runs.
“Good feeling, great feeling,” Wheeler said. “Nice team win. On to the next team.”
The next team is the league champion Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, who the Eagles will face in the final stage of the PL Climax Series. The Hawks, who wrapped up the league pennant on Sept. 16 and won the league title by 13½ games, will probably be favored to win and reach the Japan Series.
The Eagles are fine being underdogs.
“I think our guys will be able to play relaxed, because we don’t have anything to lose,” Nashida said.
The teams played 25 times during the regular season, with the Hawks holding a 13-12 edge in those games.
The series begins Wednesday night in Fukuoka with PL co-wins leader Nao Higashihama (16-5, 2.64 ERA in the regular season) on the mound for SoftBank. Nashida has tapped Takahiro Shiomi (3-3, 3.95 ERA) for the Game 1 start for Rakuten.
“We’ll be playing a team that posted 94 wins during the season, but when it comes down to head-to-head, we were almost even with them,” Nashida said. “So we’ve got to make sure we play our best ball.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.