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Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2006

Zuleta slugs 3 homers in win


Staff writer

TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. -- Ichi, ni, san.... Julio Zuleta has known how to count in Japanese for a few years.

News photo
Julio Zuleta of the Softbank Hawks points to the sky after hitting his third home run of the day on Monday against the Seibu Lions at Invoice Seibu Dome. The Hawks won 9-2. KYODO PHOTOS

And as the Pacific League pennant race heats up, Zuleta is showing he knows all about making it count in Japan.

Zuleta hit three home runs and drove in five runs and Kazumi Saito won his league-best 18th game, leading the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks to a crucial 9-2 win in the opener of a two-game series Monday at Invoice Seibu Dome.

The Hawks moved to within a game of Seibu in the white-hot PL standings. The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, who began the day trailing the Lions by a half-game, are also right in the mix for Pa League postseason position jockeying.

"I take this pennant race as if the playoffs have already begun," Zuleta said. "Whatever team you play, you're going to see them again anyway. We're already in there, so we just think of it like that."

And the big-game atmosphere was present in just about every way imaginable Monday: a solid contingent of major league scouts was mixed in among the crowd of 34,946 fans, which was split almost evenly between Hawks and Lions supporters.

"It's a very good feeling," Zuleta said. "We've just got to keep going."

With an effort like Monday's, Softbank should be a threat to extend its five-game unbeaten streak any time it steps on the field.

Zuleta's first homer was a three-run blast in the top of the third inning, which gave the Hawks what would have been enough runs to win just five batters into the tieup.

The shot to center was an early statement, giving Fumiya Nishiguchi (9-9) all the credentials he would need to fall to .500 on the year.

Zuleta had gone deep thrice in a game only one previous time, back in 2003 during his first season with the then-Daiei Hawks. The fat offensive numbers raised the Panama-born slugger's season totals to 29 homers and 89 RBIs.

News photo
Nippon Ham Fighters starting pitcher Tomoya Yagi celebrates with teammate Michihiro Ogasawara after earning his 11th win of the season on Monday at Fullcast Stadium. The Fighters beat the Tohoku Rakuten Eagles 2-0.

Zuleta got the best of Nishiguchi once more, homering to left field in the sixth inning.

Nishiguchi gave up six runs and nine hits in 5 2/3 innings of work before giving way to Tomoki Hoshino, whose 1 1/3 scoreless innings of relief were the home team's bright spot from the mound.

Saito (18-4) struck out 10 batters -- surrendering seven hits, four walks and an earned run -- in eight solid innings. The right-hander slowed down a bit in the eighth, getting himself into a bases-loaded jam before striking out Takeya Nakamura to end the threat.

The Hawks led 6-2 in the eighth, and with the bases juiced, it seemed to serve as a reminder to the team that has finished atop the PL for the last three seasons, a refresher that even a four-run spread may not be safe in the season's final week and a half.

Atsushi Okamoto struck out Nobuhiko Matsunaka to lead off the top of the ninth, but he fared no better against Zuleta than did Nishiguchi. Zuleta got ahold of another one, sending a souvenir right into the heart of the Hawks' cheering section in left field.

Naoki Matoba had a two-run double later in the frame to set up the final margin.

Also for Softbank, second baseman Yuichi Honda went 3-for-4 with a pair of RBI doubles.

Hiroyuki Takagi and Kosuke Noda drove in runs for Seibu.

The final game of the series, Seibu's penultimate home slate of the regular season, will be played Tuesday at 6 p.m. The Lions will send Daisuke Matsuzaka (16-4) to the hill against the Hawks' Nagisa Arakaki (7-4).

Fighters in 1st

SENDAI (Kyodo) Michihiro Ogasawara drove in two runs and Tomoya Yagi pitched his third shutout of the season as the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters defeated the Tohoku Rakuten Eagles 2-0 Monday for their fourth straight win Monday and moved into the Pacific League lead for the first time since May 19.

Mariners 4, Buffaloes 3

At Chiba Marine Stadium, Rookie left-hander Yoshihisa Naruse threw his first shutout and Benny Agbayani hit a two-run homer as Chiba Lotte defeated Orix.

CENTRAL LEAGUE

Dragons 6, BayStars 4

At Yokohama Stadium, Tyrone Woods broke a scoreless tie with a three-run homer and Hirokazu Ibata and Alex Ochoa added solo shots as Chunichi beat Yokohama to reduce its magic number to 14 for clinching the CL title.

Tigers 6, Swallows 5 (11)

At Koshien Stadium, Tokyo Yakult center fielder Norichika Aoki dropped a shallow fly ball by Osamu Hamanaka with none out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the 11th, giving Hanshin a "sayonara" victory.

Carp 4, Giants 3

At Hiroshima Stadium, Tomonori Maeda doubled in two runs in the first and Shigenobu Shima hit a solo homer in the third as Hiroshima edged Yomiuri.



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