FUKUOKA – All anyone could do was wait. A decision that could have a big impact on the complexion of the Japan Series hung in the balance, as the umpiring crew checked replay after replay in the bottom of the seventh inning at Yafuoku Dome.
The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks had definitely scored one run on Akira Nakamura’s hit to right to tie the game. The question was, had they actually scored two and taken a one-run lead, or had the Yokohama BayStars recorded the third out of the inning by the slimmest of margins.
After a very, very lengthy review, the verdict came in: Kenta Imamiya was safe at home, and the Hawks had a one-run lead.
An advantage relievers Livan Moinelo and closer Dennis Sarfate made hold up over the seventh and eight innings, as the Hawks edged the BayStars 4-3 to take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
“Nakamura came up with a great hit, and Imamiya made a great head-first slide at home,” Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo said. “Those plays carried us to the win.”
After being held to a single run by BayStars starter Shota Imanaga and trailing by two runs, the Hawks came alive against the Yokohama bullpen.
Pinch hitter Kenji Akashi led off with a double off Tomoya Mikami and advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt. Yuki Yanagita drove him in with a single off Yoshiki Sunada to make the score 3-2. Seiichi Uchikawa drew a two-out walk against Yokohama’s Spencer Patton later in the frame to load the bases for Nakamura. The “Lefty Sniper” came through with a hit to right.
“I wasn’t thinking about possibly not getting a hit,” Nakamura said. “Rather, I was only thinking about getting a hit by any means. I only had a positive mindset.”
Yanagita scored easily, and Imamiya raced home from second and slid in just as catcher Yasutaka Tobashira collected the relay and dove to make the tag.
“I caught a glimpse of the BayStars’ relay as I was rounding third and thought to myself, ‘this is no good,’ ” Imamiya said. “So I decided to go in head first and it paid off.”
He was initially ruled out, which quickly brought Kudo out of the dugout to ask for a review. The umpiring crew acquiesced and disappeared for several minutes.
“We watched five or six different replays, from different angles, to try and determine the location of the (catcher’s) mitt and (Imamiya’s) hand,” umpire Atsushi Kittaka said.
“We saw a clear replay and that’s why we reversed the call. Of course, if we had a video that indicated he was out, we would’ve stayed with the original call.”
The Hawks stood in their dugout, while the BayStars waited in the field, both sides unsure of whether the inning would continue or not as the umpires deliberated.
“The catcher touched my wrist from above, so I thought we had a chance,” Imamiya said.
It was a nervous wait.
“I was thinking it might stay as an out,” Imamiya added.
Some Hawks fans began to chant “safe, safe” as they grew restless in the stands, and erupted when the call was finally reversed.
“I’ve never heard it louder than that,” Nakamura said. “I was so excited I got goosebumps.”
Like Kudo, he credited Imamiya for his slide.
“Timing-wise, he was definitely out,” Nakamura said. “But Imamiya made a great slide, and I’m thankful for that.”
Imamiya was only on base because of a one-out error by second baseman Tatsuhiro Shibata on a ball that could’ve resulted in an inning-ending double play.
“That error was the one that basically killed the inning,” BayStars manager Alex Ramirez said. “That would’ve been a double play and the inning would’ve been over with just one run. That happens. That was a really good play by Shibata, but we just couldn’t come up with the double play.”
Ramirez didn’t dispute the ruling on the play at the plate.
“After they went inside and saw the replay, how many umpires saw the replay, five, six,” he said. “They came back and called it safe, it was safe.”
The Hawks’ Shuta Ishikawa was credited with the win in relief. Spencer Patton took the loss. Neither starter factored in the decision despite staging a pitcher’s duel early.
Imanaga left the game after allowing just one run on five hits and striking out 10, his most in 2017, over six innings.
“Great pitching by Imanaga,” Ramirez said.
His counterpart, Nao Higashihama lasted 5 1/3 innings, allowing one run on four hits and striking out six.
Nakamura finished with a pair of RBIs, while Alfredo Despaigne and Yanagita drove in the Hawks’ other runs.
The BayStars scored all their runs in the sixth. Takayuki Kajitani led off with a home run and Toshiro Miyazaki hit a two-run blast.
The series now heads to Yokohama for at least the next two games, and a third if the BayStars can win once.
“We’ve finished the first two games and took both, Kudo said. “That’s the best possible way to do it.”
While the Hawks are halfway to the crown, the BayStars aren’t ready to bow out yet. They’ll be back at Yokohama Stadium for the first time since their regular-season finale on Oct. 4, for Game 3.
“They haven’t won yet,” Ramirez said. “They gotta win four games. We have to get back home. We haven’t been home in a long time. So we’re going to take it home.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report