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Sunday, Oct. 8, 2006

Masterful Matsuzaka

Seibu star strikes out 13 By

Staff writer

TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. -- Kazumi Saito was good enough to beat any pitcher in Japan on Saturday.

News photo
Seibu Lions starter Daisuke Matsuzaka delivers a pitch against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in Game 1 of the Pacific League first-stage playoffs on Saturday at Invoice Seibu Dome. Matsuzaka struck out 13 in his six-hit shutout. The Lions won 1-0. KYODO PHOTO

Any pitcher but Daisuke Matsuzaka, that is.

The Matsuzaka-Saito showdown lived up to its billing, but it was Seibu's ace who prevailed in the duel, striking out 13 batters in a six-hit shutout as the Lions topped the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks 1-0 in Game 1 of the first-stage Pacific League playoffs at Invoice Seibu Dome.

"I was able to pitch relaxed," Matsuzaka said after giving the Lions a 1-0 edge in the three-game series. "It's a tough game against Saito during the season, so I knew the playoff game would be even more intense."

Kazuhiro Wada drove in the game's only run, providing the difference in a contest between two master craftsmen who were close to their best.

"We had our ace pitcher going, so I thought one run might be enough to win it," said outfielder Kazuhiro Wada, who drove in the game's only run.

Matsuzaka (18-5) faced only one serious jam in his 15th complete game of the year, getting Naoyuki Omura to ground out with the bases loaded in the top of the seventh.

Yuichi Honda laid a perfect bunt up the third-base line with two outs, easily beating Takeya Nakamura's throw. Catcher Naoki Matoba hit a clean single to left, bringing leadoff hitter Munenori Kawasaki to the plate.

Matsuzaka's fourth pitch hit the shortstop on the elbow, juicing the bases for center fielder Omura.

It was Matsuzaka's fourth hit batsman of the game. In Matsuzaka's final regular-season start, a loss to the Chiba Lotte Marines in which he struggled with control, Matsuzaka hit two batters.

Kawasaki's was not the most painful plunk of the night. Matoba took a hard one on his ribs, leaving the field to be examined by trainers before returning to take his base after a short delay.

On a night where pitching ruled, that may have been the hardest hit.

Saturday's four hit batsmen raised some concern from the right-hander and served to tarnish what was a masterful performance otherwise -- no walks, six hits, no runs and 13 strikeouts.

"Please forget about the four batters I hit," Matsuzaka told fans after the win.

Saito's fatal frame came on the heels of Matsuzaka's wild inning, in the bottom of the seventh. Saito had retired 14 of 15 batters heading into the seventh, allowing only a walk to Alex Cabrera during the stretch. Cabrera was erased when Wada hit into a double play in the fourth.

Three innings later, however, there was no easy exit to be found for Saito.

The Hawks righty gave up singles to Nakajima and Cabrera to lead off the inning, and the Softbank bench took action, apparently ready to go to the bullpen before 2005 PL batting champ Wada stepped to the plate.

Saito had left the field and gone into the dugout, emerging shortly thereafter to keep his outing alive.

Wada stepped to the plate, and Hawks fans who may have been thinking double play had to groan as the left fielder decided to stop at second when Wada got ahold of a forkball with a 1-0 count.

Wada's extra-base hit to left brought Nakajima around easily, ensuring that Saito's complete-game four-hitter would be for naught. With three of Seibu's hits coming in the seventh, timely was the word of the night for the Lions.

"I took the first pitch, but I saw a high one coming in, so I went for it," Wada said.

Saito retired the next three batters in order, getting Jeff Liefer to ground out to second base before striking out Nakamura and Yasuyuki Kataoka. But it was too late.

Saito walked two batters, and with nine strikeouts, he was not outclassed on the mound. Even so, Matsuzaka's lucky 13 helped to send reeling Softbank to its not-so-lucky seventh straight loss before a crowd of 29,187.

Not among those in attendance, however, was Softbank manager Sadaharu Oh, who has been out of action since having his stomach removed in July. Oh has been in and out of the hospital since the procedure, and the team has been under the direction of interim manager Koji Moriwaki.

The Hawks are on the verge of elimination and have not won a playoff series since 2003, when they won the Japan Series as the Daiei Hawks. That was the final series before the Pa League started having playoffs.

Hawks left fielder Nobuhiko Matsunaka was the only player with multiple hits, going 2-for-4 with a double. Matsunaka's two-bagger, which led off the second inning, could have been a home run had it just been a meter higher.

The Lions need only one more win to advance to the PL finals, where the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters are waiting.

Seibu will look to complete the sweep Sunday at Seibu Dome, when it will give the ball to rookie Hironori Matsunaga (3-4). Tsuyoshi Wada (14-6) will start for Softbank.

BayStars triumph

YOKOHAMA (Kyodo) Shuichi Murata hit a three-run homer in the eighth inning Saturday as the Yokohama BayStars beat the Chunichi Dragons 3-2 in Central League action.

Tigers 5, Giants 3

At Koshien Stadium, Tomoaki Kanemoto homered twice and Andy Sheets drove in the go-ahead run as Hanshin held off Yomiuri.

Swallows 4, Carp 3

At Jingu Stadium, Alex Ramirez hit a three-run homer for Tokyo Yakult in the eighth.

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