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Hawks land on top / SoftBank pushes over late run to beat Yomiuri, give PL 4th straight interleague

by Jim Allen (Jun 23, 2008)

The Hawks ended the first half of their season in fighting fashion on Sunday, battling back to end their interleague season with a win and a 50 million yen check.

After failing to close out the resilient Yomiuri Giants the night before, Fukuoka SoftBank stuffed their Tokyo Dome hosts in the late innings, holding on for a 3-2 victory and wrapping up their first interleague title. It was the fourth to go to a Pacific League team since the format began in 2005.

A battle between impressive southpaws Tsuyoshi Wada of the Hawks and the Giants' Tetsuya Utsumi was resolved when SoftBank scraped out a run in the ninth inning off Giants closer Marc Kroon (1-2).

"With neither team forced to win, and a pair of aces going like that, you knew runs were going to be at a premium," said Hawks skipper Sadaharu Oh, whose club lost 3-2 in 12 innings in the series opener. "It was a great game, for the fans, but for us it was one tough battle."

Oh's club, in pulled to within 1-1/2 games of the second-place Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and three games of the PL-leading Saitama Seibu Lions.

"We can see their backs now, we're in reach and we're playing our kind of ball," Oh said.

Utsumi struck out 10 as he allowed two runs in seven innings, while Wada gave up two in 7-1/3. But unlike Saturday's bullpen blowup, the Hawks relief corps was solid on Sunday.

The Hawks hitters, who hit few balls hard all night, got lucky against Kroon in the ninth. An infield single, an error by the pitcher, a sacrifice and a close play at the plate on a grounder to second was all SoftBank needed to reach for the winners' check.

When Wada left the mound with one out and a man on in the eighth, Yuki Kume (4-1) got two outs and picked up the win. Akihiro Yanase gave up a leadoff single in the ninth, but struck out a batter. On the next pitch, pinch-runner Takahiro Suzuki was caught stealing.

C.J. Nitkowski came on when Takayuki Shimizu was announced as a pinch-hitter with a 1-0 count and the bases a Giant void. The lefty got a foul and a swinging strike on the veteran left-handed hitter before getting a groundout and his second save.

"I've done that before, [coming in to the game behind in the count] but It's unusual," said Nitkowski. "He isn't a big home run threat, and there're no runners in scoring position, so you try to get him to hit into an out on the first pitch."

With the out, the Hawks soared into celebration of their first title of any kind since the 2003 Japan Series.

"It is a championship, so you can't deny it's some kind of motivation," said Hawks shortstop and team leader Munenori Kawasaki. "But as pros, our job is to go out and make plays day in and day out. Our job is not over, won't be over until season's end."

The Hawks, Giants, Fighters, and Hanshin Tigers all entered the day tied for the interleague lead. With last year's interleague results as the tiebreaker, the 2007 interleague champion Fighters needed only to beat the Tigers to lock up a second straight title. Their 5-3 loss to the Tigers left the title to be decided in Tokyo.

For the second straight night, the Hawks scored a run in the first inning. The Hawks didn't make much contact but with one out and the bases jammed, Naoyuki Omura's infield single made it 1-0 against Giants lefty Tetsuya Utsumi.

The Giants tied it in the second with their first hit, Shinnosuke Abe's sixth homer of the year, and took the lead on Yoshinobu Takahashi's opposite-field, solo blast in the fifth.

Abe's fourth of the year here was a dome special: a high fly that just carried over the park's high but shallow wall. Takahashi drilled a high 2-1 fastball into the seats in left center for his ninth home run of the year. The Giants leadoff man had returned to action on June 15 after missing 32 games with lower back trouble. It was his first homer since April 17.

The Hawks, however, came back in a hurry against Utsumi on a one-out walk and Omura's two-out RBI double. They had a chance to take the lead in the eighth, but center fielder Yoshitomo Tani threw speedy Yuichi Honda out at the plate and SoftBank stranded three in the inning.


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