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Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011

News photo
Time to regroup: Led by manager Koji Akiyama(left) and captain Hiroki Kokubo, the Hawks aim to stop the Dragons from taking a 3-0 lead in the Japan Series on Tuesday. KYODO PHOTO

Hawks look to bounce back as series shifts to Nagoya

Staff writer

FUKUOKA — Two games, four runs, 20 innings and two bad pitches by Fukuoka Softbank Hawks closer Takahiro Mahara have added up to a 2-0 lead for the Chunichi Dragons in the Japan Series.

The biggest part of the Dragons' formula might be all the chances the Hawks have given away.

After racking up the second-most runs in Japan during the regular season, the Hawks' offense has lost its punch, leaving the team on the verge of watching a series it was favored to win slip away, after losing 2-1 in 10 innings in Games 1 and 2.

"We need to forget (about the losses)," team captain Hiroki Kokubo said. "We can in a sense, since we're headed up to Nagoya. We don't have a game (on Monday), so I think we'll be refreshed."

The Hawks haven't played like a team that scored 550 runs and stole 180 bases during the regular season. Instead they've retreated into a conservative shell. Leadoff hits have been followed by bunts in the early innings, as if the team is playing for a single run rather than letting the lineup flex its muscle.

Yuya Hasegawa was twice (second and fourth innings) forced to bunt in Game 2 in order to move a runner over with no outs, despite the .293 hitter's track record against Chunichi (4-for-7 with four walks) this season.

In Game 1 it was Yuichi Honda, a .305 hitter and NPB leader with 60 stolen bases during the regular season, who was bunting in the first and third innings with a runner on and no outs.

There was no guarantee either Hasegawa or Honda would come through in those spots, but there was little risk in letting them try.

"We had some chances, but we couldn't get near home plate," Softbank manager Koji Akiyama said.

The Hawks' conversion into a small-ball team hasn't gone well, and the Dragons have taken advantage by hanging around long enough to find ways to win.

Playing for one run rather than a big inning is a curious strategy to use against Chunichi, which was an NPB-best 33-22 in one-run games in the regular season. The Dragons are 4-1 in such games this postseason.

Softbank got the run it was looking for on Sunday in the seventh inning. A leadoff single by Hasegawa was followed by another by Hitoshi Tamura, who only swung after twice failing to lay down a bunt. Shuhei Fukuda then executed a sacrifice bunt before the Hawks loaded the bases against starter Kazuki Yoshimi.

By the time the rally had gotten started, however, it was late enough in the game for Dragons manager Hiromitsu Ochiai to bring on the Central League's top reliever, Takuya Asao. The right-hander limited the damage to one run, helping set the stage for the Dragons' 10th-inning heroics.

"We lost by a hair," Kokubo said. "We wish we could've scored three instead of one. You know, when you have the momentum, you should score more in that situation."

Akiyama may also rue his decision not to keep reliever Brian Falkenborg, who looked good, on the mound for the 10th instead of bringing in Mahara in Game 2.

One night after allowing Masaaki Koike's go-ahead home run in the 10th inning of Game 1, Mahara was again tasked with keeping the scored tied. He retired the first two batters with ease, but then gave up an infield single to Masahiro Araki and walked Hirokazu Ibata.

"Mahara shouldn't have given up the walk to Ibata," Akiyama said. "We'll have to take care of those."

Akiyama stuck with his closer rather than going to lefty Masahiko Morifuku against the left-handed Masahiko Morino, who went on to drive in the go-ahead run.

The Hawks have dug themselves a big hole and must beat the Dragons twice in Nagoya to ensure the series returns to Fukuoka.

"(Dragons starter Maximo) Nelson is next, right," a smiling Kokubo said. "We aren't dead yet. We can't be."

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