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Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2012

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Early bird: Hokkaido Nippon Ham's Makoto Kaneko hits an RBI single in the second inning of the Fighters' 7-3 win over the Giants in Game 3 of the Japan Series at Sapporo Dome on Tuesday. KYODO

Fighters come alive in Japan Series

Staff writer

SAPPORO — A change in scenery got the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters back in their comfort zone and back in the Japan Series.

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Go-to guy: Hokkaido Nippon Ham's Atsunori Inaba salutes fans after Game 3 of the Japan Series on Tuesday. KYODO

With former star Yu Darvish watching as a guest commentator for the television broadcast, Atsunori Inaba roused a slumping offense with an early home run, and reliever Hirotoshi Masui escaped a bases-loaded no-out jam in the eighth with the lead as the Fighters got back into the Japan Series with a 7-3 win on Tuesday at Sapporo Dome.

"We won the first game here, but we have two more games at home before we go back to Tokyo," Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama said. "We hope to win again tomorrow and Thursday and head back to Tokyo leading three games to two. Otherwise, it will be very difficult for us to take the series.

The Giants still lead the series 2-1. Game 4 is scheduled for Wednesday night.

"We played with tenacity both offensively and defensively," Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said. "I actually wanted to see more from our players offensively, but we played hard, so we should just clear our minds and start again tomorrow."

The Fighters avoided going into a 3-0 hole, but understand they're not out of the woods just yet.

"Once we enter tomorrow's game, it's a whole new ballgame," Inaba said. "I don't have any particular feeling of anxiety about what we have to do."

Inaba basked in the glow of victory on the hero interview platform after the game, as the majority of the 36,942 fans in the stands roared their approval, thanking him for breathing new life into the series.

"I think my home run changed the mood and momentum of the series," Inaba said. "It felt good to be playing at home and feel the enthusiasm of our fans."

The Nippon Ham offense finally awoke from the slumber it had been in for the first two games, exploding for seven runs and 12 hits. The Fighters had managed one run and eight hits Games 1 & 2 combined.

"We play good baseball today and got rid of our bad atmosphere," Kuriyama said. "I've been waiting for our team to play with more energy and we were finally able to do that and play the way the Fighters are supposed to play."

Inaba led the way with a solo homer in the second and an RBI double in the third. The Fighters veteran finished 2-for-4. Eiichi Koyano also finished 2-for-4, leaving him with a .455 average in the series, and Shota Ono was 2-for-3. The entire Nippon Ham starting lineup finished with at least one hit.

"Now it feels like we can finally get started," Kuriyama said. "But if we lose, it's no good. We've been playing as if it's our last game for the entire season. So hopefully we can hang in there and extend the series."

The Fighters were particularly efficient at the bottom of the order, where Koyano, Micah Hoffpauir, Ono and Makoto Kaneko — six through nine in the starting lineup — combined to finish with six hits and three RBIs.

"The way we won this game was good," Inaba said. "It makes us feel like we can get on a roll. We want to keep this momentum going tomorrow."

Nippon Ham second baseman Takahiro Imanami came up big in his first Japan Series start, starting a double play in the fourth before making another solid play to end the inning and kill a Giants rally. Imanami was also 1-for-4 at the plate.

"Nami has been good at the plate, so I've been wondering how we should use him," Kuriyama said. "He contributed to us defensively as well. He certainly helped us gain some momentum."

Nippon Ham took a 6-2 lead into the top of the eighth, but the Giants loaded the bases on singles by Tetsuya Matsumoto, Hayato Sakamoto, and Kazunari Sanematsu, who had replaced the injured Shinnosuke earlier in the game.

Fighters pitcher Hirotoshi Masui got a pop up out of Yoshinobu Takahashi then fielded Shuichi Murata's ground ball and flipped it to catcher Ono for the force out. Yoshihito Ishii drove in a run with an infield single, but Masui retired Yoshiyuki Kamei to end the threat.

Starter Brian Wolfe earned the win for Nippon Ham and came out on top of the pitching matchup with former Servite High School (Anaheim, California) teammate D.J. Houlton. Wolfe allowed two runs on five hits over innings, striking out three, walking three and hitting a batter.

"Wolfe gave us five good innings," Kuriyama said. "He pitched well, and I will not hesitate to use him again later in the series."

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Losing battle: Yomiuri's Hayato Sakamoto hits an RBI single in the fifth inning on Tuesday night. KYODO

Houlton failed to make it out of the third, giving up five runs on five hits over 2⅔ innings.

"When your starting pitcher doesn't hang in for three innings, you can't win," Hara said.

The Giants fizzled at the plate in their first road contest of the postseason. Yomiuri finished with 11 hits, but stranded runners in key situations.

Tetsuya Matsumoto and Hayato Sakamoto each finished with three hits, with Sakamoto also driving in a run. Matsumoto also made a diving catch in center with the bases loaded that prevented the final score from being worse than it was.

"Matsumoto did pretty well today," Hara said. "Our No. 2 and No. 3 (Matsumoto and Sakamoto) were pretty good, now our main players need to step up."

Catcher Shinnosuke Abe was 0-for-2 and left after feeling discomfort in his right leg while trying to get on base during the fifth inning. Abe was replaced by Sanematsu.

"We'll see how he moves tomorrow," Hara said.

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