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Monday, Oct. 9, 2006

Wounded Hawks lash out at Lions to level series

Staff writer

TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. -- What a response.

News photo
Fukuoka Softbank's Nobuhiko Matsunaka slams a three-run homer off Lions reliever Takashi Ishii in the top of the ninth at Invoice Seibu Dome on Sunday afternoon. With the 11-3 win, the Hawks tied the first-stage Pacific League playoffs at 1-1. KYODO PHOTO

Punched in the mouth by Daisuke Matsuzaka and the Seibu Lions in Saturday's series opener, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks bounced back with an 11-3 win Sunday at Invoice Seibu Dome, pushing the first-stage Pacific League playoffs to a decisive Game 3.

Nobuhiko Matsunaka drove in five runs and Akihiro Yanase was brilliant out of the bullpen as Softbank ended a seven-game losing streak that began Sept. 19 on the Lions' home turf.

"It feels great to win the game and keep the series going," Matsunaka said.

That's exactly what the Hawks did on a day when losing would have ended their season. Now they can do just that to the Lions on Monday.

Seibu will start Fumiya Nishiguchi in Game 3, while Softbank's Hayato Terahara will take this hill against the PL's No. 2 seed.

Saturday's 1-0 Lions victory was a showcase of pitching prowess as both Matsuzaka and Kazumi Saito went the distance, but Sunday, pitching was secondary.

Matsunaka came within a triple of hitting for the cycle, knocking an RBI double and a run-scoring single before a three-run home run in the top of the ninth.

The Hawks' star left fielder went 0-for-2 in his first pair of at-bats Sunday, stranding a pair of runners in the fourth inning against Seibu starter Hironori Matsunaga, who took the loss. Tadaatsu Nakazawa doubled in the runs later in the inning, but the failure didn't sit well with Softbank's cleanup hitter -- the top of the order set the table, so he should bring them home.

Matsunaka, who entered the series with a sub-.200 postseason batting average, didn't miss another opportunity all night.

With Naoyuki Omura on third base in the sixth inning, Matsunaka singled in an insurance run, putting the Hawks up 5-3 after Seibu had cut into the lead in the previous inning.

Matsunaka pumped his fist in celebration.

"I failed to come through on my previous at-bat, so I thought, 'It's now or never,' " he said.

"Never" wasn't a word in the 10-year veteran's vocabulary Sunday.

Stepping to the plate in the eighth, Matsunaka rocketed a double down the third-base line. The ball rolled all the way to the corner gap in left field, and Noriyoshi Omishi scored.

Again, the emotional Matsunaka pumped his fist, looking lively and rightly feeling that he was contributing. An inning later, even that sensation was blown away.

With Munenori Kawasaki and Hidenori Tanoue on base and the Hawks a run into a jarring ninth-inning rally, Matsunaka crushed a homer to right-center field against Takashi Ishii, Seibu's sixth and final pitcher.

By the time the game was over, Matsunaka was unable to hide his feelings.

"I really felt I had to come through for the fans and for our manager," said Matsunaka, acknowledging Sadaharu Oh as he broke into tears. "He is sick and we are playing for him.

"We're going to play our best tomorrow. We want a chance to take this back to Fukuoka."

Oh had his stomach removed this summer to fend off the early stages of stomach cancer, and the Hawks have been without him since he took leave in early July.

Softbank's bullpen, meanwhile, pulled together and made the best of Tsuyoshi Wada's short night.

Wada lasted 4 1/3 innings Sunday, coming out with one out and runners in scoring position. Enter Yanase, who set the tone for the Hawks' fabulous relief.

Hiroyuki Nakajima, who had homered in the bottom of the first, drove in one of Yanase's inherited runners with a sacrifice fly to left field, but the right-hander struck out Seibu slugger Alex Cabrera to end the Lions' fifth-inning threat.

Yanase threw 2 2/3 no-hit innings, earning the victory. He struck out four.

"I knew I had to give it my best to put out the fire," Yanase said.

"Pitching in the playoffs is something really special."

Yoshiaki Fujioka and Takahiro Mahara each pitched a scoreless inning of relief, keeping the Lions off the scoreboard in the eighth and ninth, respectively.

Aside from a Nakajima single against Fujioka, Seibu did not have a base runner after Wada checked out.

Meanwhile, Matsunaka's RBIs in the sixth and eighth gave the Hawks a little breathing room, and the visitors' five-run ninth effectively slammed the door -- while Saturday's game was a nip-tuck pitchers' duel that either team may have won with some luck, Sunday wasn't even close.

Tanoue had an RBI single in the ninth to start things off, and with the bases empty, Julio Zuleta homered to center field, rounding out the scoring.

Matsunaka is 5-for-9 in two games, and the star left fielder is the only player in the series with multiple hits in each game.

Kawasaki, 2-for-4 with two runs, kept a streak going through the series' first two games as well, his more dubious than Matsunaka's. Lions reliever Koji Mitsui put Kawasaki on base in the ninth Sunday when he plunked the shortstop on his right shoulder.

Kawasaki also took one for the team Saturday against Matsuzaka, who hit four batters with pitches.

Seibu's staff managed only a pair of beans Sunday, but aside from Kawasaki, the wealth has been spread around a bit.

In fact, the only hitter in Softbank's top five Sunday who hadn't been hit with a pitch was Matsunaka.

Omura also had multiple hits, while Jolbert Cabrera walked with the bases loaded to drive in a run. Nakazawa's three-run double was tainted only slightly when the infielder was thrown out at third trying to stretch the hit into a triple.

Rookie left-hander Matsunaga had a thing with fours in his first postseason start -- four innings, four earned runs, four hits and four strikeouts. He broke form with two walks.

Dragons move closer

YOKOHAMA (Kyodo) The Chunichi Dragons capitalized on defensive miscues to edge the Yokohama BayStars 4-3 on Sunday to take another step closer to the Central League title.

After squandering a two-run lead with the BayStars' three-run rally in the seventh inning, Chunichi scored two runs on a wild throw home by Yokohama third baseman Shuichi Murata with one out and the bases loaded in the eighth at Yokohama Stadium.

Giants 5, Tigers 1 (10)

At Koshien Stadium, Yomiuri scored four runs on six singles in the top of the 10th inning, dealing a severe blow to Hanshin's fading title hopes.

Carp 7, Swallows 3

At Tokyo's Jingu Stadium, Jun Hirose broke a 3-3 tie with a two-run double in a four-run eighth inning as Hiroshima held off Yakult.

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