FUKUOKA – Kodai Senga gave the Yomiuri Giants chances early on as he worked his way into Game 1 of this year’s Japan Series.
Once the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks ace finally got going, however, the Giants’ hopes faded with each retired batter.
Senga outdueled Shun Yamaguchi in a matchup of two of NPB’s top pitchers, Yurisbel Gracial hit a two-run home run and the Hawks got off to a fast start in the Japan Series with a 7-2 win on Saturday night at Yafuoku Dome.
“I’m thankful (Gracial) came up with the hit after I gave up the first run,” Senga said.
The Hawks lead the series 1-0 and are three wins away from their third straight title.
After Senga gave up a home run to Shinnosuke Abe in the top of the second, Gracial followed an Akira Nakamura double with a two-run homer in the bottom half. The Cuban outfielder has had a solid postseason at the plate, going 10-for-30 with four home runs in eight games.
“I don’t know where it was exactly, but it looked like a hard pitch to hit,” Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo said. “But he was able to hit it far.”
The slim lead was all Senga needed.
“I tried to use my slider and cutter and I just wanted to be able to throw all my pitches,” Senga said. “I think I was able to pitch well.”
The Hawks right-hander became the third pitcher in NPB history to start Game 1 of the Japanese Fall Classic in three straight years. He got off to a slightly shaky start, however, allowing a home run to Shinnosuke Abe and also walking three batters in his first 2 2/3 innings.
“It wasn’t my first time,” Senga said. “I think that probably helped me calm down. I’m just grateful to be on such an amazing team.”
Senga locked in after that, retiring the next 12 he faced before pitching into and out of a jam in seventh. He threw seven innings overall, allowing one run on three hits. He struck out five and walked three.
“I believe he was nervous pitching in the first game,” Kudo said. “I was a pitcher myself, and I was thinking about what it was like for me the night before. Like, was I getting enough sleep?
“I think he had a lot of pressure on his shoulders. But after he gave up the home run, he was patient and waited for some run support from his teammates. I give him credit for pitching as patiently and as long as he did.”
The Hawks’ victory extended the Pacific League’s home winning streak in the Japan Series to 16. The last Central League team to earn a win on the road was the Giants in Game 6 of the 2013 Series against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
Yamaguchi ended up on the short end of the showdown between Sawamura Award candidates. The Giants starter allowed three runs on five hits over six innings in the loss. He struck out eight, walked one and hit a batter.
Abe’s solo homer in the second and a home run by Takumi Oshiro in the ninth accounted for all of Yomiuri’s offense. The rest of the Giants combined for four singles, with Shunta Tanaka finishing 2-for-4.
The Hawks were leading 2-1 when Nakamura provided a little breathing room with a sacrifice fly that brought home a run in the sixth. SoftBank then broke the game open in the seventh. Taisei Makihara drove in two runs with a single, Yuki Yanagita hit an RBI single and Shuhei Fukuda capped the four-run frame with an RBI groundout that made it 7-1.
Game 2 is Sunday night back at Yafuoku Dome.
SoftBank’s Rei Takahashi will get the start against Yomiuri’s C.C. Mercedes.
“We want to win three more to become Japan Series champions,” Senga said.