Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Hawks jump on Fighters early, coast to victory in playoff opener

SoftBank scores five runs in the first inning

Kyodo

Alfredo Despaigne started the NPB postseason with a bang, hitting a first-inning grand slam as the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks cruised to an 8-3 victory over the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in Game 1 of the Pacific League Climax Series’ first stage on Saturday.

The Hawks can now advance to the final stage against the PL champion Seibu Lions with either a win or a tie over the next two games at Yafuoku Dome — since all Climax Series stages finishing in a tie are won by the higher-finishing team from the regular season standings.

With the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the first, Despaigne came up with no outs, and Fighters pitcher Naoyuki Uwasawa could not locate his fastball when he tried to go low in the zone. His 1-2 fastball missed high and outside but was straight as could be and the Hawks designated hitter clubbed it out to right field for an opposite-field home run and a 5-1 Hawks lead.

“I missed games this season (with injury), but I have rehabbed and prepared, and I’m so happy to contribute and that we were able to win this crucial game,” said Despaigne, who was out of the lineup from Aug. 17 to Sept. 18.

Uwasawa faced 10 batters in the first, surrendered a two-run homer to No. 9 hitter Takuya Kai in the third and was pulled after three innings. He was charged with seven runs on nine hits and two walks.

Former Seattle Mariner Ariel Miranda started for the Hawks, surrendered a first-inning home run to Kensuke Kondo and was in firm control of the game until he issued three of his four walks — two with the bases loaded — in the Fighters’ two-run fourth.

At that point, the Hawks bullpen took over the game in the form of troubled starter Shota Takeda. The right-hander not only got out of the one-out, bases-loaded jam, but retired all eight batters he faced to get SoftBank through six innings with a safe lead.

Seiji Uebayashi got things started for the second-place Hawks with a double. A four-pitch walk put two on and was followed by a fluke single — a spinning chopper off Akira Nakamura’s bat that was headed foul before it stopped fair for an infield single.

Yuki Yanagita smashed a single between first and second, tying the game and keeping the bases loaded for Despaigne.

Kai put the game on ice in the third after Yurisbel Gracial reached on an infield single. The Hawks catcher belted a 2-2 fastball away out to right for another opposite-field shot.

In the top of the fifth, the Fighters’ Oswaldo Arcia opened the inning with his second single of the game, and Toshitake Yokoo singled with one out. Miranda then did the rest by walking the next three hitters.

That was the signal for Takeda, who has been shuttling between the starting rotation and bullpen this season, to save the day. The right-handed breaking-ball wiz got weak contact and a force at the plate before striking out the tough left-handed-hitting Kondo on four pitches.

“I had never come into a game with the bases loaded before and I was pretty nervous,” said Takeda, who pumped his fist after Kondo went down swinging. “I failed in the rotation this year, but I want to contribute in middle relief, even if it’s just a little.”

SoftBank made it 8-3 in the bottom of the sixth on two singles and a wild pitch by Takayuki Kato, the Fighters’ fourth pitcher.