Just when the Rakuten Eagles looked ready to take flight, Hokkaido Nippon Ham ace Yu Darvish shot them down.
The right-hander put in his 17th quality start in 18 games, tossing a four-hitter in a 3-1 win over Rakuten in a Fighters' home game at Tokyo Dome on Thursday before 20,773.
Darvish (11-3), the Pacific League's ERA leader named earlier in the day to Japan's Olympic team, breezed through the Eagles to win his fifth straight decision and bring the Fighters to within one game of the PL-leading Saitama Seibu Lions.
Kensuke Tanaka drove in a pair of runs, including the go-ahead run with a fifth-inning double, and Shinji Takahashi had two hits and an RBI in support of Darvish, who needed only 89 pitches to work through Rakuten.
"I just wanted to make sure we didn't lose again," said Darvish after his eighth complete game helped the Fighters close out the three-game set 1-1-1 after the Eagles snapped a five-game skid with a win the night before.
"I wasn't worried about the number of pitches, I just wanted to get through the game as quickly as possible," said the right-hander, who fanned 10 and walked none.
Tanaka, who upped his average to .304, broke a 1-1 tie with a two-out two-bagger and later scored the third run.
"They were playing the outfield in, so I knew if I could get good wood on it, I could get it over them, and I was able to do that," Tanaka said.
Once they got the lead back, Tanaka said they were confident behind Darvish.
"The way he was pitching today, three runs were all he needed," said Tanaka, who finished 2-for-3 with a walk. "We really came through at that point to get him some runs."
For Nippon Ham skipper Masataka Nashida, watching Darvish's dominance was like having a night off.
"I was really able to sit back and enjoy the game tonight," said Nashida, who asked reporters how long the game took.
When told 2 hours 36 minutes, Nashida said, "I bet [Darvish] wasn't on the mound for 50 of those minutes. He had the inning where he gave up the one-out triple, but then came back and struck out the next two batters.
"He had good pitch selection and this place is small so sometimes you give up homers, but tonight there was no reason to worry about that."
The Fighters made loser Domingo Guzman (2-5) pay for a slow first-inning start. Hichori Morimoto, after ducking a 149-kph first pitch fastball, singled to left to open the frame.
Toshimasa Konta sacrificed Morimoto to second and the speedy runner flew home on Tanaka's single to center for a 1-0 Nippon Ham lead.
But the scrappy Eagles came back to tie it in the fourth inning, thanks to a pair of perfectly placed grounders.