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Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2006

SPORTS SCOPE

Oh inspired Hawks despite absence


TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. -- Here is a look back at the first-stage Pacific League playoffs, in which the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks beat the Seibu Lions 2-1.

Stephen Ellsesser

In a sentence: The Hawks combined persistent offense and excellent pitching to purge their PL postseason demons.

The straw that stirred the drink: Sadaharu Oh.

Softbank's manager would be hard-pressed to motivate more powerfully in person than he did in absentia this weekend, stirring up Julio Zuleta, encouraging the Hawks to come back from a 1-0 series deficit and bringing tears to Nobuhiko Matsunaka's eyes during an interview.

Give this guy a raise: Akihiro Yanase.

The reliever earned both of the Hawks' victories, diffusing Tsuyoshi Wada's time bomb relatively easily Sunday and keeping Seibu off the scoreboard for two more innings Monday.

After turning in a hitless 4 2/3 innings over two games, Yanase and his 7.2 million yen salary looked like a sweet deal.

Laughing all the way to the bank: Consider Yanase's numbers (salary and otherwise) in comparison with Seibu stink bombs Koji Mitsui and Minoru Yamagishi, whose combined salaries are 54 million yen and whose weekend work was foul. The duo was key to making sure Softbank had more than enough run support, especially Mitsui (2 1/3 innings, four earned runs, three walks, two hits and one hit batsman).

Yamagishi loses points for failing to be a stopper against Matsunaka during the sixth inning Sunday, when the left-fielder hit an RBI single an inning after Seibu had cut the Hawks' lead to a run.

It was a backbreaker, but the death knell came later. With Yanase as an alternative, it's not difficult to spot the bargain.

Biggest misconception about the winner: That the Hawks were spent.

Kazumi Saito did all he could against Daisuke Matsuzaka on Saturday, but Softbank still tumbled to its seventh straight loss, including the regular season.

The Hawks have had it tough without Oh, and the late-season swoon that kept them comfortably in third place as the pennant race stayed white hot in late September smacked of a team that is at the end of its rope.

Its ace going down in a heartbreaker only added to the perception. Instead, emotionally charged Softbank came out the next two days, poked holes in the Lions' bullpen and won consecutive games to become the first PL No. 3 seed to advance to the second stage.

Hardest truth about the loser: There is only one Daisuke Matsuzaka, and though superhuman he may be, he still was good for only one win in a short series. And now, he is G-O-N-E.

Has anyone seen: Alex Cabrera. The highest-paid player in Japanese baseball (.315, 31 home runs, league-leading 100 RBIs in 2006) was sucking wind on the Mendoza Line through the weekend, going 2-for-10 with a walk and an impressive four strikeouts.

Cabrera made so much wind whiffing three times Sunday that Invoice Seibu Dome almost lost its roof.

Making matters worse, one of Cabrera's hits should have been marked an error because defensive sub Satoru Morimoto bobbled the ball at third base.

Not the inspiring effort Seibu would have liked to see from its cleanup hitter.

Alex Cabrera?

More like Alex Rodriguez this postseason.

Kiss the babies goodbye when: Homare Inamine wants to meet you in a dark alley.

Perhaps the most physically unimposing player in Japanese baseball, Inamine played big in the clincher, driving in the tying run with a pinch-hit single.

The 167-cm Inamine got a boost when fellow hero Julio Zuleta wrapped an arm around Inamine's shoulders and picked him up.

Zuleta, a 197-cm tower at first base, could have been carrying a sack or groceries or taking his imaginary Japanese son to high school. It was cute.

What didn't show up on TV: Shortly after the Hawks' hero interview Monday, Matsuzaka strolled out of the Lions' dugout and wandered into right field, stopping right in front of the oendan, Seibu's private cheering section.

Some of the die hards had headed for Seibu Kyujo-mae Station already, and they missed it. The Monster tipped his hat to the fans who had been screaming for him over the last eight years and bowed, a final sayonara.

Matsuzaka has pitched his last game at Seibu Dome, and after he is posted in the offseason, Dai-chan will be heading to the major leagues.

Matsuzaka got a final ovation, and a couple thousand Lions backers got a special memory, a nod from one of the franchise's best.

Not a hitting streak, but: a hit-by-pitch streak.

Hawks shortstop Munenori Kawasaki took more for the team against the Lions than anyone, getting beaned once in each game.

The leadoff man is supposed to get on base at all costs, sure, but if he gets any more purple spots on his body during the postseason, he will start looking more at home at a rave in Shibuya than on the diamond.



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