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Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2006

Comeback Hawks heading to Hokkaido

Beat Lions in decisive Game 3 to win first stage of PL playoffs By

Staff writer

TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. -- Third place is feeling a whole lot better than first has the last couple years for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.

News photo
Softbank's Homare Inamine delivers an RBI single in the seventh inning of Game 3 of the first stage of the Pacific League playoffs at Seibu Dome on Monday. The Hawks won 6-1 to take the series 2-1. Softbank will take on Hokkaido Nippon Ham in the second stage. KYODO PHOTO

Homare Inamine hit a game-tying, pinch-hit single, Julio Zuleta blasted a three-run home run and Akihiro Yanase picked up his second win of the postseason as the third-seeded Hawks beat the Seibu Lions 6-1 on Monday afternoon, taking the first-stage Pacific League playoffs 2-1.

Softbank will play the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in Game 1 of the second-stage PL playoffs Wednesday in Sapporo.

"The only thing I want is good momentum, so I hope we can go to Sapporo and do it again," Zuleta said.

The Hawks have already set new precedents in the PL postseason, winning the team's first series in three years since the playoff system was instituted, as well as becoming the first No. 3 seed to pull the first-stage upset.

Now, they will have a chance to take it a step further.

"It feels great," Zuleta said. "It's been a learning experience for us. Last two years, we were first, but we didn't win. Now we know what it takes to be there."

Softbank has been the PL's No. 1 seed the last two seasons, losing five-game series to the Lions and Chiba Lotte Marines on their home field.

The playoff format has been revamped for this season, and under the new rules, the second-stage is a four-game playoff with the top team coming in with a 1-0 series advantage.

"It's a strange format, but there's nothing we can do about it," Zuleta said.

Previously, all games were hosted by the first seed, but if the Hawks can leave Sapporo with at least a split, they will be able to take the series back to Fukuoka.

And if baseball makes it back to Yahoo Dome this year, Zuleta and his teammates are hopeful that manager Sadaharu Oh may be able to follow his club more closely.

Oh has been out since July after leaving to have his stomach removed to ward off the early stages of stomach cancer.

Hawks cleanup hitter Nobuhiko Matsunaka broke into tears talking about Oh after Sunday's 11-3 win over Seibu, and although Zuleta maintained composure, he left no doubt about his feelings.

"He really brought us together since my first year here," said the four-year veteran. "We're trying to get this for him because winning the championship would be the best gift. If we win, maybe he can get healthy faster."

After getting shut down by Daisuke Matsuzaka in the series opener, the Hawks came back the next two games like a team on a mission.

Monday, they relied on heroics from Zuleta and Inamine, a Mutt and Jeff tandem who helped Softbank expose the Lions' bullpen for the second day in a row.

The 167-cm Inamine, the shortest player on the Hawks' roster, stepped to the plate in the seventh with the Lions leading 1-0, thanks to Takeya Nakamura's solo home run in the fifth.

With Zuleta and Jolbert Cabrera on base, Inamine was a pinch hitter for catcher Katsuki Yamazaki.

The Okinawan, a .196 hitter, singled to right, scoring Zuleta from third and tying the game.

"I picked a great time to get a hit," said the pint sized Inamine, who seemed as surprised as anyone to be a hero of the game.

An inning later, 197-cm behemoth Zuleta crushed a three-run homer to left field, scoring Tadaatsu Nakazawa and Matsunaka, who had walked to open the frame.

Zuleta was the first batter Minoru Yamagishi faced, but because Tomoki Hoshino was responsible for the runners, he was given the loss.

"The only thing on my mind was to put the team ahead," Zuleta said. "He threw me what I was looking for, and I hit it out."

In a third of an inning-plus, Hoshino walked two of the three batters he faced. Hoshino was brought in during Saturday's game to go up against Matsunaka, but after Softbank's cleanup hitter knocked an RBI single, the lefty was pulled.

A night later, he was not much better.

The Hawks' bullpen, meanwhile, was almost as steady in relief of Hayato Terahara on Monday as it was backing Tsuyoshi Wada on Sunday.

Yanase (2-0) walked two but didn't allow a runner past first base in two scoreless, hitless innings in the clincher. Yanase now has two wins and no hits to show for his 4 2/3 innings pitched in two postseason games.

Yoshiaki Fujioka threw a perfect eighth inning, while Takahiro Mahara gave up a double to Hiroyuki Nakajima and Alex Cabrera got on base, getting credit for an infield single on what should have been charged as an error to third baseman Satoru Morimoto.

But with two runners on, Mahara buckled down, retiring the next three batters and sending the Hawks into the next round.

Matsunaka, who had been 5-for-9 with five RBIs in the first two games, cooled off a little in the third game, going 1-for-4 with a walk and an RBI double in the win.

Matsunaka drove in Naoyuki Omura in the top of the ninth, fattening the final margin.

Zuleta finished 2-for-5 with the homer, and Jolbert Cabrera went 3-for-4 with a run scored.

Nakajima, the only Lion to have multiple hits in any game, went 2-for-4 with a pair of doubles, closing his season with consecutive multi-hit games.

Game 1 in Sapporo is at 6 p.m. on Wednesday.

Dragons near flag

Kyodo News Hirokazu Ibata hit a two-run homer and Tyrone Woods added a grand slam to lead an 11-hit attack as the Chunichi Dragons closed in on the Central League title with a 10-1 drubbing of the Yakult Swallows on Monday.

Backed by ample run support, right-hander Kenichi Nakata (7-4) limited Yakult to a run over six innings despite struggling with his control at Tokyo's Jingu Stadium, helping the Dragons cut their magic number for winning the league championship to one.

Woods increased his league-leading home run tally to 45.

BayStars 5, Carp 3

At Yokohama Stadium, Shuichi Murata ignited the offense with a homer and Daisuke Miura (8-12) worked six effective innings, leading the BayStars over Hiroshima.

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