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Thursday, Oct. 12, 2006

Darvish excels vs. Hawks

Staff writer

SAPPORO -- Messing this one up will be pretty tough.

News photo
Hokkaido Nippon Ham hurler Yu Darvish reacts after striking out the final batter of the game as the Fighters downed the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks 3-1 in Game 1 of the Pacific League second-stage playoffs at Sapporo Dome. KYODO PHOTO

Already spotted a game in the second-stage Pacific League playoffs, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters rode Yu Darvish's brilliant complete game and airtight defense, beating the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks 3-1 on Wednesday at Sapporo Dome.

Because of the PL's new postseason format, in which the top seed came in with a 1-0 series lead, the Fighters are only a game away from winning the PL championship and clinching a spot in the Japan Series.

Darvish, who shut out the Hawks in April and is 2-0 against them with a 0.00 ERA this season, went the distance Wednesday, striking out 11 and scattering seven hits.

"It was a great feeling being cheered on by 43,000 fans," said Darvish, acknowledging the crowd of 42,382. "I felt I couldn't let them down."

And they couldn't let the Iranian-Japanese righty, either. Manager Trey Hillman said the fans were a part of the reason why he let Darvish pitch the ninth instead of going to ace closer Micheal Nakamura.

"We had relief pitchers ready, and usually you go with your closer in that situation in the ninth, but I had confidence in Darvish because he's the type of kid who feeds off the crowd noise," Hillman said of the second-year right-hander. "And our fans came through loud and clear."

Although there were some Hawks fans in the stands, the capacity crowd was overwhelmingly pulling for the Hammies.

And now the Fighters' goal becomes rewarding their supporters by winning the PL pennant on their home field. Softbank would have to win all three remaining games to turn Nippon Ham on its head, but a win Thursday would send the series back to Yahoo Dome.

"Softbank isn't going to lay down, and they are going to do everything they can to take it back to Fukuoka," Hillman said. "Our fans deserve to see us win it here."

News photo
Fukuoka Softbank Hawks shortstop Munenori Kawasaki slides home safely past Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters catcher Shinya Tsuruoka during the first inning of Wednesday's Game 1 of the Pacific League second-stage playoffs at Sapporo Dome. KYODO PHOTO

But Darvish and his teammates aren't planning to let it take that long to clinch.

"We're on the verge of winning, and I think tomorrow, you will see the doage at Sapporo Dome," said Darvish, referring to Hillman and the tradition of tossing the manager in the air after winning a championship.

Darvish started slowly, giving up singles to Munenori Kawasaki and Naoyuki Omura to open the game. Hiroshi Shibahara laid down a sacrifice bunt to put the runners in scoring position, bringing cleanup hitter Nobuhiko Matsunaka to bat with a prime chance to add to his seven RBIs this postseason.

A sacrifice fly to left field wasn't exactly what Matsunaka was looking for, but with speedy Kawasaki on third and Hichori Morimotos throw just off the mark, Softbank took a 1-0 lead.

Darvish then walked Julio Zuleta intentionally before hitting Yoichi Honda with a pitch, loading the bases.

Kensuke Tanaka robbed Jolbert Cabrera of a hit, catching a hard liner at second, to end the inning.

It wasn't much breathing room for the Hawks, and certainly not enough the way Darvish was firing.

"After the first, (center fielder Tsuyoshi) Shinjo told me, 'We can come back,"' Darvish said. "I was encouraged by that."

It looked like Darvish wouldn't have to wait long for that comeback when Nippon Ham cleanup hitter Fernando Seguignol stepped to the plate with one out and runners on first and second in the bottom of the first.

Toshiya Sugiuchi struck out Seguignol and got out of the inning when Atsunori Inaba popped out to shortstop. Sugiuchi escaped then, but burly Panamanian designated hitter Seguignol wouldn't come up short the next time opportunity knocked.

In the bottom of the third with the top of the order due up, Morimoto led off with a single up the middle. Tanaka advanced the runner with a sac bunt, and Michihiro Ogasawara walked to put runners on for Seguignol.

Seguignol singled to left, tying the game, and two batters later, Shinjo made good on his promise to Darvish with a single to right, which scored Ogasawara.

Sugiuchi came out after the third, allowing two earned runs, five hits and two walks in taking the loss. The left-hander struck out one.

The Hawks' bullpen, called upon for an early night's work for the third straight game, kept it close, but against Mr. Stage One, Akihiro Yanase, the Fighters added to their lead in the eighth inning.

Yanase, a rookie who made only 10 appearances in the regular season, earned both victories against Seibu in the first-stage playoffs in relief, but Wednesday his excellence lost its edge.

Yanase walked two of the five batters he faced, including one in the seventh, when he entered the game. An inning later, he was pulled after Yuji Iiyama walked and Shinya Tsuruoka singled with one out.

Yoshiaki Fujioka gave up a single to shortstop Makoto Kaneko to score Iiyama. Yanase was charged with his first run of the postseason.

The fate of Softbank's season rests on the shoulders of Kazumi Saito, who was beaten in a duel with Daisuke Matsuzaka in Game 1 of the first stage. Saito will face Tomoya Yagi. Ogasawara, who led the PL in home runs and RBIs, walked three times, one of which was intentional.

Shinjo was 2-for-3 with a walk in the winning effort, and Kaneko also had multiple hits.

After going 5-for-9 in his first two postseason games, Matsunaka is 1-for-6 with two walks. He was 1-for-2 with a walk Wednesday.

Kawasaki was the only Hawk with multiple hits, going 2-for-4. He was hit by a pitch for the fourth straight game.

Mets-Cards set

NEW YORK (AP) After cruising through a sensational regular season, Tom Glavine and the New York Mets are trying to reach the World Series with a makeshift pitching rotation.

Pedro Martinez is injured. So is Orlando Hernandez. And the Mets might start rookie John Maine twice in the NL Championship Series against St. Louis.

Trying to slow down slugger Albert Pujols is a tall order for any staff, much less one missing two experienced arms.

No wonder so much is riding on Glavine's outing Wednesday night, when New York and the Cardinals open the best-of-seven NLCS at Shea Stadium.

"I don't feel like there's any added pressure on me," Glavine said. "Losing Pedro and losing El Duque certainly hurts us. It's not the ideal situation going in. But that's the responsibility of all 25 guys on our team to try and make up and pick up the slack."

A rejuvenated Jeff Weaver will be on the mound for St. Louis, which won 14 fewer games than New York this year.

The Cardinals should have All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen back in Game 1 after he received a cortisone shot for his surgically repaired left shoulder. But center fielder Jim Edmonds has been fighting the effects of a concussion.

Reyes admired

NEW YORK (AP) Jose Reyes has an admirer in David Eckstein, a fellow shortstop and pesky leadoff hitter who sets the table for St. Louis.

"I think anybody that's watched him play loves his enthusiasm, his love for the game," Eckstein said of the Mets' speedster. "It just shows through. His raw talent is unbelievable."

Reyes and Eckstein will be key performers when the Mets meet the Cardinals in the NL championship series beginning Wednesday night. Reyes sparks New York's high-powered offense while Eckstein can cause problems batting ahead of Cardinals sluggers Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds.

"I think we're playing a totally different ballclub than we played at Shea (Stadium) towards the end of the year with Eckstein and Jimmy healthy," Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca said.

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