TOKOROZAWA, SAITAMA PREF. - The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks moved to within one win of the Japan Series on Saturday when they whipped the Seibu Lions 8-2 in Game 4 of the Pacific League Climax Series Final Stage.
The Hawks have won three of the four games played at MetLife Dome. Because the Lions began the six-game series with a one-win advantage as league champs, SoftBank now holds a 3-2 lead.
The winner here will face the Central League’s Hiroshima Carp in the Japan Series, starting next Saturday in Hiroshima.
The six-run margin equaled the Hawks’ 10-4 Game 1 win as the smallest winning margin in the series but was the first in which neither team scored 10 runs.
The Hawks, looking to return to the Japan Series for the second straight year, opened the scoring on a two-run, first-inning home run by their top MVP candidate, Yuki Yanagita.
Light-hitting Hawks catcher Takuya Kai, SoftBank’s No. 9 hitter, took rookie Lions starter Tatsuya Imai (0-1) over the fence in left for a two-run homer in the second, before the Lions made a dent in SoftBank’s lead.
Hawks starter Nao Higashihama retired six of the first seven batters he faced before giving up a leadoff double to No. 8 hitter Shuta Tonosaki in the third inning and a two-run home run to Fumikazu Kimura, the Lions’ last batter.
Kimura then furthered Seibu’s cause by robbing Kai of a two-out RBI double in the top of the fourth. The Lions right fielder leaped at the warning track to haul in Kai’s drive, slammed into the wall and held on for the final out.
Imai, Seibu’s top draft pick in 2016, lasted 4-2/3 innings, surrendering four runs on six hits and two walks, while striking out five.
“Actually I was able to get ahead in counts better than I usually (do), but I was unable to put batters away in crucial situations,” the 20-year-old Imai said.
But the tide did not turn, and the Hawks tacked on four more runs in the top of the seventh. Former closer Tatsushi Masuda walked two of the three batters he faced. Kyle Martin struck out one hitter before walking Yanagita to load the bases.
Alfredo Despaigne brought home a run on an infield single, Akira Nakamura walked to make it 6-2, and Seiichi Uchikawa singled in two more runs to cap the rally.
Higashihama was pulled after allowing two runs on three hits and a walk over four innings. He struck out seven. The win went to reliever Shota Takeda (1-0), who threw two scoreless innings. A trio of Hawks relievers held the Lions to a walk over the final three innings.
“(Four innings) was not part of the plan,” Higashihama said. “I threw as well as a I could. Because we won, it’s all good.”
The Lions lost their principle catcher, Tomoya Mori, when Despaigne’s bat hit him in the left wrist in the first inning. Losing one of their big hitters didn’t help, but Seibu skipper Hatsuhiko Tsuji credited the Hawks pitching with shutting down Japan’s most potent scoring machine.
“That was fairly brutal. When they come at (you) with pitching like that, getting hits is no easy task,” Tsuji said.
In Sunday’s Game 5, the Hawks will send rookie right-hander Rei Takahashi against right-hander Brian Wolfe, a former SoftBank hurler.