Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Giants grab early lead against Dragons, extend winning streak to five

Hayato Sakamoto delivers decisive blow with grand slam in second inning

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

All it took was one ball, right were Hayato Sakamoto likes it, for the suddenly surging Yomiuri Giants to get off and running toward another victory.

Sakamoto connected on his first grand slam in six years, Nobutaka Imamura ended a long winless drought and the Kyojin finished off a sweep of the Chunichi Dragons with a 5-3 win on Thursday night at Tokyo Dome.

“I was able to really put my swing on it,” Sakamoto said of his homer in the second inning.

Sakamoto is deadly against inside pitches and Chunichi starter Enny Romero kept his distance during the shortstop’s at-bat in the first inning, mostly staying outside during a five-pitch walk. Romero mostly stayed away again in the second inning, with Sakamoto hitting with the bases loaded.

But the Yomiuri star eventually got an offering inside and too far over the plate and crushed it to left to give the Giants a 4-0 lead.

“I was aware they hadn’t gone inside much, and I was able to react well to it,” Sakamoto said.

The homer was Sakamoto’s 24th this year, the most he’s hit since a career-high 31 in 2010. His last grand slam came against the Hiroshima Carp on April 19, 2013.

“I’m not really a home run batter, so I’m not really aware of those kinds of things,” Sakamoto said. “But to hit a grand slam, I’m really happy.”

The victory was the Giants’ fifth straight. The Kyojin have returned to Central League action with a bang, sweeping a two-game series against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows before taking three from Chunichi after going 11-7 during this year’s interleague competition.

“The team’s condition is really good right now,” Imamura said.

Imamura pitched six-plus innings and was charged with three runs but came away with his first win since April 28. Imamura (2-1), allowed four hits, struck out four and walked four.

“He gave us six good innings and I asked for one more. Otake helped us out there,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said, referring to Kan Otake, who took over for Imamura during the seventh and preserved the lead.

Romero (5-6) was denied a third straight win after being charged with four runs over four innings on the mound. He walked seven batters and struck out four.

The Dragons starter pitched himself into bases-loaded situations in each of the first two innings. He escaped the first when Takumi Oshiro hit into a double play. He wasn’t as lucky the second time against Sakamoto.

Yomiuri nearly took the lead early in the second inning when Akihiro Wakabayashi was waved around third on a single by Seiji Kobayashi. But Dragons outfielder Nobumasa Fukuda fielded the ball cleanly and fired it to catcher Takuma Kato, who tagged out the runner for the second out of the inning.

Imamura followed with a single and Daikan Yoh drew a walk to load the bases. Sakamoto then got all of a 155-kph fastball, sending it into the seats in left field.

“I didn’t know if we were going to get a run there, but Sakamoto came through on the one inside pitch,” Hara said.

The Dragons got on the board with a sacrifice fly from Ryosuke Hirata in the top of the fifth, but the Giants answered with a solo homer by Kobayashi in the sixth.

Fukuda drew a walk to start the Chunichi half of the seventh and scored from first on a double from Toshiki Abe, who finished the night 3-for-4 with two doubles. The Dragons crept another run closer on Takuya Kinoshita’s RBI groundout later in the inning.

That’s as close as Chunichi got, with Otake finishing off the seventh, Kazuto Taguchi working the eighth and Kota Nakagawa earning his 11th save of the year in the ninth.

Soto powers BayStars

Yokohama

KYODO

Neftali Soto doubled, scored the go-ahead run and added his league-leading 25th home run as the Yokohama BayStars pounded the Hanshin Tigers 7-2 in the Central League on Thursday.

Swallows 7, Carp 2

At Hiroshima’s Mazda Stadium, Tokyo Yakult rookie Shota Nakayama hit a three-run homer as the Swallows downed Hiroshima to complete a three-game sweep.

PACIFIC LEAGUE

Hawks 6, Eagles 3

At Fukuoka’s Yafuoku Dome, Yurisbel Gracial homered twice and drove in five runs as Fukuoka SoftBank soared past Tohoku Rakuten.

It was Gracial’s second big night of the series, following his six RBI performance in Tuesday’s opener, two games that sandwiched Cuban compatriot Alfredo Despaigne’s decisive grand slam on Wednesday. The Hawks’ sweep at Yafuoku Dome left them five games ahead of the second-place Eagles in the PL standings.

“Personally, I can never be satisfied with whatever results I get,” Gracial said. “I’m very happy, however, that these results contributed to wins for the team.”

Right-hander Kodai Senga (9-2) surrendered two runs, while striking out 10 over seven innings. Jabari Blash scored both of Rakuten’s runs off Senga, who struck out the slugger in the sixth to escape a jam.

“I gave away two runs just like that, so I am grateful to my teammates for backing me up,” said Senga, who threw 127 pitches on five days rest.

“What he (Gracial) did was so amazing, I don’t have words for it.”

SoftBank scored three in the first inning off lefty Wataru Karashima (5-4). Rookie Shuto Ukyo slammed a high hanging slider off the center-field wall for a leadoff triple and opened the scoring on a Seiichi Uchikawa single. Gracial capped the rally by driving a low fastball out down the right field line for his 18th home run.

“That was a tough pitch but I somehow hit it well. I’m so happy we could take the early lead,” Gracial said.

The Eagles got a run back in the second, when Blash led off with his 20th homer. In the fourth, he doubled and scored to make it a 3-2 game.

But Gracial changed the game’s complexion with one swing.

With one out and two on in the sixth, right-hander Koji Aoyama came in to face Gracial. Aoyama missed with a 1-0 pitch in the heart of the strike zone, and Gracial drove it over the dome’s short inner wall in left.

“It just happened that he threw the pitch I was waiting for and I timed it well,” Gracial said.

Karashima was charged with five runs on seven hits and a walk over 5-1/3 innings. He struck out nine.

Buffaloes 4, Marines 2

At Osaka’s Kyocera Dome, lefty Daiki Tajima (2-0) allowed two unearned runs in five innings as Orix held off Chiba Lotte.

Lions 8, Fighters 2

At Sapporo Dome, Zach Neal (3-1) struck out five over six shutout innings, and Shuta Tonosaki and Takeya Nakamura each drove in three runs in Seibu’s triumph over Hokkaido Nippon Ham.

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