Baseball / Japanese Baseball

First-place Lions rally past PL rival Fighters to earn series-opening victory

Kyodo

Yusei Kikuchi battled for 6-2/3 innings, and two relievers finished strong as the Seibu Lions rallied for a 4-3, come-from-behind victory over the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters on Friday.

In the opener of a three-game series at MetLife Dome between the Pacific League’s top two teams, relievers Katsunori Hirai (2-1) and Deunte Heath retired the last seven batters to increase Seibu’s lead to 3-1/2 games.

With the Lions trailing 3-1, Hirai entered with two outs and a runner on second, and needed just four pitches to get the hosts out of the inning.

“Yusei hung in and battled for us. He and I are the same age, you know, and I was determined to have his back and keep them from scoring,” said Hirai, who retired the heart of the Fighters batting order in the eighth after the Lions scored three times in the bottom of the seventh.

“We’d come from behind and this was where we absolutely needed to hold them.”

Heath, who was signed in May after starting the season with the independent league Toyama GRN Thunderbirds, struck out all three batters he faced to earn his first NPB save since recording four in 2015 with the Hiroshima Carp.

“It was my first save and a big win for the team,” Heath said. “I feel good and I’m glad I was throwing strikes and on the same page with the catcher. We have good starting pitching, a great bullpen and the hitters are putting a lot of runs on the board and keeping us in the game.”

A pair of hard-hit singles that just missed infielders’ gloves for singles and some sharp baserunning by slugger Takeya Nakamura got Seibu started in the seventh against Fighters starter Naoki Uwasawa.

Nakamura singled, alertly went to third on Shogo Saito’s single and scored on Takumi Kuriyama’s pinch-hit sacrifice fly off lefty reliever Naoki Miyanishi (2-1). Shogo Akiyama walked and a crisp single from Sosuke Genda loaded the bases with one out.

Miyanishi then got the next batter to ground out to short, but second baseman Kazunari Ishii failed to complete the double play with a wild throw to first as two runs scored.

Uwasawa dominated the Lions lineup with his sharp-breaking curve through 2-2/3 innings, when he hung one to Ginjiro Sumitani, who slammed a double into the left-field corner. Akiyama followed by driving a high fastball into the gap in right for an RBI double.

Kikuchi held Nippon Ham scoreless for three innings, but he ran up his pitch count as he worked his way out of jams. The lefty surrendered the lead in the fourth, when the first three batters reached.

Brandon Laird followed Sho Nakata’s leadoff single with his 23rd home run, teeing off on a high curveball. Oswaldo Arcia singled, went to second on a sacrifice and scored on Yushi Shimizu’s single to make it 3-1.

Hawks 5, Buffaloes 3

At Fukuoka’s Yafuoku Dome, Rick van den Hurk (7-7) allowed two runs in six innings, while Nobuhiro Matsuda capped a three-run fourth inning with his 19th home run, a two-run shot as Fukuoka SoftBank handed Orix its fourth straight loss.

Marines 2, Eagles 1 (10)

At Sendai’s Rakuten Seimei Park, after Daichi Suzuki singled with one out in the 10th, Tohoku Rakuten shortstop Eigoro Mogi missed a routine grounder, sending the lead runner to third, from where he scored the go-ahead run on a sacrifice fly by Chiba Lotte catcher Tatsuhiro Tamura.

CENTRAL LEAGUE

Dragons 4, Giants 3

At Nagoya Dome, Chunichi broke a 3-3, ninth-inning tie without a hit as Yomiuri reliever Hirokazu Sawamura (1-4) issued a leadoff walk and put runners on the corners with a throwing error. After intentionally walking the bases loaded to get a force out at home, the right-hander walked Yohei Oshima to bring in the winning run.

BayStars 7, Carp 6 (11)