Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Hawks take Japan Series lead after dominant Game 4 performance at home

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Yuki Yanagita’s throw in from center field was good, Kenji Akashi’s relay was better and Takuya Kai’s tag at the plate was even better still.

All that was just in the first inning, and the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks were just getting started. Alfredo Despaigne and Seiji Uebayashi hit home runs and the Hawks bullpen prevented a repeat of the Hiroshima Carp rally that nearly tripped them up a day earlier as SoftBank earned a 4-1 victory in Game 4 of the Japan Series in front of a crowd of 35,796 at Yafuoku Dome.

The Hawks will now take a 2-1 lead (Game 1 was a tie) in the series into Thursday’s Game 5. SoftBank also improved to 11-0 in its last 11 Japan Series games at home, dating back to 2011.

“We don’t want to lose at Yafuoku Dome because we have so many fans behind us,” Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo said.

The home crowd was into it almost from the start after a huge defensive play in the opening frame.

The Carp’s Yoshihiro Maru came to the plate with the speedy Ryosuke Kikuchi on first and hit a double to center that looked liked it might give Hiroshima an early lead. Yanagita fielded the ball and fired it to second baseman Akashi, who turned and rifled the ball home to Kai, who tagged out Kikuchi.

“If we’d allowed them to score first, it would’ve given them the momentum,” Kudo said. “But we got the out at the plate with our team play. It was really big.”

Starter Nao Higashihama was certainly appreciative.

“It saved me and helped me get in rhythm,” he said. “I think it got the entire team going.”

Hiroshima’s Seiya Suzuki hit his third home run in two games, but it wasn’t enough against a Hawks team that may have found its groove against the Carp pitchers.

After managing only three runs in the first two games, the Hawks have scored 13 in Games 3 and 4. Nakamura and Kenta Imamiya each had a two-hit night for SoftBank, which finished with nine hits after racking up 12 in the previous game.

Higashihama got the win for the Hawks, tossing five innings of one-run ball. Higashihama allowed four hits, struck out four and walked one batter.

“He pitched amazing, and our relievers didn’t allow any hits,” Kudo said.

Higashihama was taking the mound one night after watching Hiroshima put up eight runs and bang out 16 hits

“I was aware (of the Carp’s offensive ability) and was just trying to hold them down no matter what it took,” he said. “Although I gave up the homer to Seiya Suzuki, I think I did fine overall.”

Relievers Livan Moinelo, Shota Takeda, Shinya Kayama and closer Yuito Mori pitched after Higashihama and allowed just three walks the rest of the way.

It was a far cry from the five runs the SoftBank bullpen allowed in Game 3, when Hiroshima nearly rallied for a victory.

“Whenever we give them a job to do, they respond and we’re always appreciative for that,” Kudo said. “They warm up properly in the bullpen and have the right mindset on the mound.”

Suzuki’s home run was the bright spot for the Carp. The Hiroshima outfielder, who also drew a walk, is 9-for-16 with three homers and six RBIs at the plate during the series.

Carp pitcher Yusuke Nomura was charged with the loss after giving up three runs in 4⅓ innings.

Nomura got off to a good start on the mound, retiring all six batters he faced through two innings.

But after Nobuhiro Matsuda and Imamiya went down without much trouble to start the third, No. 9 hitter Kai extended the inning with a single to left. It turned out to be a crucial hit as Uebayashi followed with a home run to right that made the score 2-0.

“I thought it was gone as soon as I hit it,” Uebayashi said.

The lead was cut to one when Suzuki hit a solo homer to left-center in the top of the fourth.

SoftBank slugger Despaigne restored the two-run advantage in the bottom half with his second home run of the series, a solo drive to left.

“The Hiroshima pitcher had great control and was using both corners of the plate,” Kudo said. “But (Despaigne) didn’t miss the pitch he was looking for, so it was a nice home run by him.”

The Hawks sent Yuya Hasegawa to the plate as a pinch hitter with runners on first and third and one out in the sixth. The move paid off as the veteran hit a ball that bounced up the middle and between Hiroshima’s All-Star middle infield of second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi and shortstop Kosuke Tanaka, allowing a run to score and putting the home team up 4-1.

Game 5 will be take place on Thursday. Both teams will send their Game 1 starters out for the second tie, with the Hawks’ Kodai Senga opposing Carp ace Daichi Osera.

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.