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Friday, Oct. 13, 2006

Fighters win Pacific League

Secure first pennant in quarter of a century By


Staff writer

SAPPORO -- The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters needed only one chance to win their first Pacific League championship since 1981.

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The Agony and Ecstasy: Atsunori Inaba of the Fighters (center) celebrates with teammates after Hokkaido Nippon Ham clinched its first Pacific League pennant in 25 years, while devastated Fukuoka Softbank pitcher Kazumi Saito (left photo) crouches down on the mound. The Fighters beat the Hawks 1-0 at Sapporo Dome on Thursday in Game 2 of the second-stage PL playoffs to go through to the Japan Series, where they will face the Chunichi Dragons. KYODO PHOTOS

Nippon Ham didn't get its first runner in scoring position until the ninth inning, and Atsunori Inaba hit into a fielder's choice that scored Hichori Morimoto from second base as the Fighters beat the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks 1-0 in Game 2 of the second-stage PL playoffs on Thursday at Sapporo Dome, completing a series sweep.

"Shinjirarenai," -- Japanese for "unbelievable" -- said Fighters manager Trey Hillman after the win.

Hillman had better believe it -- Nippon Ham became the first PL No. 1 seed to advance and win the pennant since the postseason began, and the Texan is the second foreign manager in as many years to be in the Japan Series.

The Fighters will play the Chunichi Dragons in the Japan Series beginning Oct. 21 at Nagoya Dome.

Thursday, rookie Tomoya Yagi won a duel with veteran Softbank right-hander Kazumi Saito, both pitchers going the distance in a tight game.

Yagi was nearly flawless in his postseason debut with the Fighters, while 11-year veteran Saito fell to 0-5 in the playoffs -- clearly experience isn't everything.

Yagi threw a three-hitter for Nippon Ham's second straight complete game, following Yu Darvish's effort in Wednesday's victory and proving one more time that Young Guns II was better than the original.

Yagi fanned four batters and walked only one. He didn't start striking out Softbank hitters until the fourth inning, but he began frustrating the Hawks' offense long before.

In the second, third and fifth, Softbank got a runner on base, including the leadoff hitter in the second and third, but each time the runners were erased. Double plays were the culprit twice -- in the second, Julio Zuleta hit into a 6-4-3 twin killing that negated Nobuhiko Matsunaka's single off the wall in right field, and in the fifth, Jolbert Cabrera struck out and Zuleta was called out trying to steal second base after making what the umpires ruled a dangerous slide.

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Tadaatsu Nakazawa began the sixth with a single to left field, moving to second on Shotaro Ide's sacrifice bunt, but Yagi fanned Naoki Matoba and Munenori Kawasaki to get out of the inning.

Kawasaki slammed his bat to the dirt in frustration, but in actuality it was a minor victory against the left-hander -- Softbank's first runner to be stranded instead of erased.

The stranded runner was a luxury the Hawks would have one more time, in the eighth inning, when Ide hit into a fielder's choice with Zuleta on first to end the inning.

Softbank hit three hard balls to left field in the top of the ninth, but Morimoto ran down the ball every time, exhibiting the defensive excellence that has become a trademark of Hillman's ballclub.

Saito, meanwhile, was brilliant in dispatching Nippon Ham's lineup as well, allowing more hits than Yagi but keeping runners out of scoring position through the first eight innings.

In the ninth, however, Saito hit a wall. Morimoto walked to lead off the inning, and Kensuke Tanaka advanced him to second with a sacrifice bunt.

Michihiro Ogasawara, hitless in the second stage, stepped to the plate, and Saito walked the 2006 Pa League RBI and home run champion intentionally, hoping to get Fernando Seguignol to ground into a double play.

Seguignol struck out, and Inaba stepped to the plate with two on and two outs. With a 1-0 count, Inaba hit a grounder almost out of shortstop Kawasaki's reach, but the Hawks' man got a glove on it and flipped the ball to second base, trying to force out Ogasawara.

Ogasawara beat the throw, and Morimoto loped home. End of game, end of series.

"When I saw him earlier, he looked kind of tentative, but he got hot," Seguignol said. "You know, he's the best pitcher in baseball, I think. He's 0-5 in the playoffs, but he's just unlucky."

Saito collapsed on the mound and had to be carried off the field by teammates.

It wasn't supposed to be that way for Saito, who led the PL in strikeouts, innings pitched, wins and winning percentage this season.

He had allowed only one run in a complete-game loss against Daisuke Matsuzaka and the Seibu Lions in the first-stage PL playoffs, and lack of run support sent him to another 1-0 loss in Hokkaido.

Saito gave up four hits and his only walks were the two in the ninth inning. He struck out eight, but his stats were no help as the Fighters celebrated clinching the pennant.

Nippon Ham supporters, the only audible voice among the crowd of 42,380, threw streamers onto the field.

"I'm speechless, totally free of worries," Seguignol said. "This is special, especially for the guys who have been here for a few years. There's a lot of emotion."

The Fighters were well into their revelry when a drained Matsunaka left the field, seemingly full of disappointment in place of the euphoria that helped Softbank come back and win the first stage.

Hillman was tossed into the air for his "doage," and the cheering continued well into the evening.

"I want to do it again," Hillman said of the doage.

Tanaka had two of the Fighters' three hits, but his biggest contribution was the sac bunt in the ninth. Makoto Kaneko and Naoto Inada also had basehits for Nippon Ham, which went from fifth place in 2005 to PL champs in a year.

CENTRAL LEAGUE

Tigers 5, Dragons 1

BayStars 11, Swallows 5



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