FUKUOKA – Nobuhiro Matsuda raised his fist in triumph in front of the dugout as he and over 30,000 fans shook Yafuoku Dome with a spirited yell of “atsuo,” the custom in Fukuoka whenever Matsuda goes deep.
Matsuda spun around while hopping on one leg as six innings of simmering tension exploded into a sudden burst of euphoria.
Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks starter Rei Takahashi carried a no-hitter into the seventh, Matsuda injected some offense into a game that had belonged to the pitchers with a tiebreaking three-run home run in the seventh and the Hawks moved closer to another Japan Series title with a 6-3 victory over the Yomiuri Giants in Game 2 on Sunday night in Kyushu.
“I thought it was a home run as soon as I hit it,” Matsuda said. “I hit a home run to center at Tokyo Dome, and I got a similar feeling. So I thought it was gone when I hit it. It was the biggest stage, biggest setting and the best way for it to play out.”
The two-time defending champions lead the series 2-0 and stand two victories away from NPB’s first threepeat since the Seibu Lions’ run of titles from 1990-92. SoftBank has outscored Yomiuri 13-5 in the first two games. A tight pitcher’s duel between Takahashi and Giants starter C.C. Mercedes had limited the teams to one hit each through the top of the seventh.
But with Giants reliever Kan Otake on the mound to start the bottom of the seventh, the Hawks put runners on the corners after an error by third baseman Akihiro Wakabayashi and a single by Yurisbel Gracial.
“There was the liner (by Gracial into left) and I was like, ‘whoa, first and third, wow!’ Then I got really nervous,” Matsuda said. “I thought at least a fly ball would be enough to get a run in.”
Matsuda then sent a ball screaming over the wall in dead center to give the Hawks a 3-0 advantage.
“When the count got to 0-2, I was able to put my kind of swing on it,” he said.
SoftBank tacked a few more runs onto the lead in the eighth on a solo homer from Yuki Yanagita and a two-run shot by Shuhei Fukuda.
The Giants pushed across three in the bottom of the ninth, but it was too little too late.
Before all the SoftBank fireworks, Takahashi and Mercedes put on a show most would’ve expected from Game 1 starters Kodai Senga, the Hawks’ ace, and Shun Yamaguchi.
Takahashi, in his second season but still eligible for Pacific League Rookie of the Year honors, retired the first 15 batters he faced before hitting Wakabayashi to start the sixth. He kept a no-hitter in play until a two-out single by Kazuma Okamoto in the seventh.
“Of course I was a little nervous, but I think I was able to eventually enjoy it,” Takahashi said of his start.
Takahashi finished with seven shutout innings and five strikeouts, allowing just one hit, one walk and hitting a batter.
“He had good rhythm and good control today,” Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo said.
Takahashi’s sinker kept the Giants off-balance most of the night as he racked up outs.
“I threw a sinker against leadoff batter (Yoshiyuki) Kamei in the first inning,” he said. “I think my sinker was important today. I really wanted to be able to throw it in important spots.”
Mercedes went pitch-for-pitch with Takahashi most of the way. The Yomiuri starter retired 14 straight to start the game, allowing his first baserunner on a two-out single by Matsuda in the fifth. Mercedes, who didn’t factor in the decision, allowed one hit and walked two over six innings.
The two starters were pitching so well, the game played out at a brisk pace for about six innings.
“Takahashi and Mercedes should get the speed up award,” Matsuda joked. “It was a really energy-saving kind of game. It was easy on the body.”
Otake was charged with the loss on another bad night for the Yomiuri bullpen.
Okamoto and Shinnosuke Abe each picked up an RBI in the ninth for the Giants, who had another mostly quiet night at the plate.
The series will now shift to Tokyo Dome, with the Kyojin hoping to feed off their home crowd and get things turned around. Game 3 is set for Tuesday night at 6:15 p.m. at the Big Egg.