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Buffaloes top Lions in PL opener

by Jim Allen (Mar 21, 2008)

TOKOROZAWA, Saitama--With no one else to turn to, Orix manager Terry Collins gave the ball to Chihiro Kaneko on Thursday and the right-hander turned back the Saitama Seibu Lions on Opening Day.

With four of Orix's projected starters knocked out by injury, Kaneko stepped into the breach and struck out a career-high 10 in the Buffaloes' 2-1 victory at Seibu Dome.

"It's not my style, but if I get them out, I don't really care," said Kaneko, who went 6-0 as a starter in seven games after Collins started handing him the ball last August.

Last year, Kaneko struck out 68 batters in 84 innings, getting most of his outs on the ground. But on Thursday, he worked high in the zone and the Lions obliged by swinging and missing a lot.

It was his seventh straight win as a starter since he got hammered here in his lone unsuccessful start, on July 1, 2006. Kaneko said he was not interested in the streak as much as how things go this season.

"That was last year's stuff," said Kaneko, who was a pre-draft free selection by the Buffaloes in 2004. "I don't want to dwell on that. I want to start a new streak, with the team winning."

Greg LaRocca drove in both Buffaloes' runs, breaking a 1-1 tie in the eighth inning with a sacrifice fly on a tough pitch by Lions starter Hideaki Wakui.

With one out and men on second and third following an error by Wakui and a sacrifice, the Lions right-hander made a good 0-2 pitch to LaRocca. But the Orix No. 3 man was on his cutter low and away and drove it deep to center to plate the winning run.

"Wakui's tough," LaRocca said. "You're not going to get a lot of good pitches."

Wakui was indeed tough. The 21-year-old beat Orix four times in four starts last year and held the Buffaloes to three hits and four walks in eight innings on Thursday, but Kaneko was too cool a customer for the Lions.

"I was nervous before the game, but once it started, I didn't have that luxury," Kaneko said. "There were so many Buffaloes fans in the left-field stands. That showed me how much bigger this was than another game."

The Lions touched Kaneko for six hits and tied it up after LaRocca's RBI double gave the Buffaloes a lead in the third inning.

Tomotaka Sakaguchi lined a single with one out and scored from first when LaRocca lined a cutter away into the gap in right.

Seibu tied it two innings later when G.G. Sato hit the first homer of the freshly minted season. Kaneko didn't make too many bad pitches, but this was one of them. Sato put a nice swing on an ugly slider and launched it into the left-field stands

It was the first run Kaneko had allowed this year, having gone 13 innings in the preseason without giving up a run.

Kaneko walked just one batter, the leadoff man in the seventh with the score tied 1-1, but then bailed himself out with a sharp play. Kaneko pounced on the ensuing bunt and threw a perfect strike to second base to start a 1-6-4 double play.

"That walk left me feeling rotten and I was thinking I needed to redeem myself," he said. "My fielding on that bunt eased my mind."

The win may not have eased manager Collins' mind concerning his team's chances this season, but there were some good signs.

His speedy outfield duo of Sakaguchi in center and Yuichiro Mukae in left prevented a couple of hits that might have turned the tide against the Buffaloes, while his batters showed great patience at the plate. A clutch walk by No. 9 hitter Takeshi Hidaka opened the eighth-inning, while Tuffy Rhodes walked three times as the Buffaloes forced Wakui to make 140 pitches.

"That's the theory," Collins said. "You have to be patient. You can't keep hitting the pitcher's pitches."

In other Pacific League games:

Fighters 1, Marines 0: Hokkaido Nippon Ham's Yu Darvish struck out 10 over the distance to beat Chiba Lotte for the third straight time as the defending league champs opened with a victory at Sapporo Dome.

Marines starter Hiroyuki Kobayashi allowed a run in 5-1/3 innings to lose his first career Opening Day start. He loaded the bases in the sixth on two singles and a hit batsman, and a run scored when the Marines failed to turn an inning-ending double play on a grounder to short.

Hawks 4, Eagles 3: Hiroshi Shibahara blasted a sayonara, three-run homer in the ninth off Tohoku Rakuten closer Domingo Guzman, who failed to get an out as host Fukuoka SoftBank came from behind to win.

Hisashi Iwakuma allowed a run in seven innings for the Eagles, but Hitoshi Tamura opened the ninth with an infield single and went to third on a double by Nobuhiko Matsunaka before Shibahara ended the game.


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