The meek little Yakult Swallows have morphed into giant-killers over the winter.
The Swallows, who finished in the Central League basement in 2007, spanked the Yomiuri Giants 10-2 Sunday afternoon at Tokyo's Jingu Stadium to complete a three-game season-opening sweep of the defending Central League champs.
The Swallows spread it around on Sunday, with catcher Masakazu Fukukawa's seventh-inning, two-out grand slam accounting for a big chunk of the damage.
"I didn't go up there thinking home run," Fukukawa said. "I just wanted to get a hit and keep it going, get the next guy up."
Yakult starter Mikinori Kato combined with four relievers to restrict the Giants to two runs on 11 hits. Lefty Kato went 4 2/3 innings, giving up both runs on seven hits. Reliever Masaru Sato worked one-third of a hitless inning to pick up the win, but this one was all offense.
After Aaron Guiel drew a bases-loaded walk in the sixth off Giants reliever Shintaro Yoshitake to break a 2-2 tie, Yasushi Iihara slammed a two-run double to left.
With two men on and two out in the bottom of the seventh, Swallows veteran shortstop Shinya Miyamoto lined an RBI single back up the middle to make it 6-2. A walk to Iihara loaded 'em up for Fukukawa, who promptly blasted a Daisuke Ochi delivery over the left-field fence to plate four more runs.
Swallows center-fielder Norichika Aoki had a good day at the plate--as he often does--going 4-for-5 with a pair of stolen bases and three runs scored, and second baseman Hiroyasu Tanaka had three hits and scored twice.
Back-to-back doubles by Tanaka and Aoki gave the Swallows a 1-0 lead in the first and Aoki later crossed the plate when Giants starter Masafumi Togano uncorked a wild pitch.
Yoshinobu Takahashi had a pair of hits for the Giants and scored both of their runs. Alex Ramirez, who spent the past seven seasons patrolling left field for the Swallows, had two of Yomiuri's 11 hits on the day.
Consecutive doubles by Takahashi and Takuya Kimura put Yomiuri on the board in the third and Lee Seung Yeop doubled in Yomiuri's second run in the fifth, which ended Kato's outing.
Yoshitake took the loss for the Giants, allowing three runs on three hits in one-third of an inning while walking a pair. Starter Togano lasted five frames, giving up three runs on just three hits. He struck out four and walked one batter.
Giants manager Tatsunori Hara turned to Kentaro Nishimura to stop the bleeding in the sixth, but he only poured more gas on the fire. Nishimura was responsible for four runs on three hits and a pair of walks in 1 1/3 innings. He saw his ERA balloon to 27.00.
The Swallows won Friday's opener 6-2 and beat their former ace Seth Greisinger 6-3 on Saturday. Yakult outfielder Guiel was 3-for-4 Saturday, including a two-run, bases-loaded single in the seventh inning.
"This club worked really hard in spring training," said Guiel after Sunday's sweep. "To get off to a start like this, we're happy with it but we also understand it's still very early in the season. We've been getting some key hits and guys have been having good quality at-bats."
Guiel also said that it's always nice to beat a rival like the Giants, but there isn't any extra motivation because fan-favorite Ramirez and Greisinger signed with Yomiuri in the offseason.
"For the fans it's pretty emotional (seeing those players in Giants' uniforms), but as players we know they're gone," said Guiel, who whacked 35 home runs last season. "A lot of our guys feel a responsibility to fill the gap left by the departure of those two guys, but there's no score to settle and we've moved on. We're a different team now."
And a winning one so far, with new manager Shigeru Takada--a longtime Giants player in the 1970s--improving to 3-0 with the victory.
Giants shortstop Tomohiro Nioka, who left the opener after three innings, was diagnosed with a muscle tear in his right calf. The hard-luck infielder, who had knee surgery in the offseason, is out indefinitely.
Marc Kroon, the high-priced free-agent closer the Giants signed away from the Yokohama BayStars in the offseason, has yet to throw a pitch for the club since the regular season began.
(IHT/Asahi: March 31,2008)