Rakuten Eagles veteran Takeshi Yamasaki came off the bench to drive in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning Thursday night in a dramatic Game 1 of the two-game NPB All-Star series, giving the Pacific League a 5-4 sayonara win at Osaka Dome.
"I'm sorry I hogged all the credit," said MVP Yamasaki, whose game-winning drive to right-center came off Hanshin Tigers reliever Tomoyuki Kubota with the game tied and runners at the corners. "These All-Star games are a good opportunity for us Pacific League players to get a little attention. I hope this helps fans remember us."
Yamasaki's clutch hit came after Rick Short led off the inning with a double and Nobuhiko Matsunaka tied it with an RBI single through the right side of the infield off Kubota.
The late-game heroics made a winner of Orix's Daisuke Kato, who threw one inning of hitless baseball. Kubota got hit harder than a Mexican pinata, allowing two runs on four hits in just one-third of an inning in taking the loss.
Yamasaki is no stranger to All-Star glory. The 39-year-old infielder also took MVP honors in 2000 while with the CL's Chunichi Dragons.
There was a 17-year age difference between the starters in Thursday's contest, with 22-year-old Nippon-Ham Fighters ace Yu Darvish opposing Hiroshima Carp veteran left-hander Ken Takahashi, who is 39.
Tomoaki Kanemoto, the Hanshin Tigers 40-year-old veteran outfielder, gave young Darvish a good spanking he won't soon forget, smacking a fastball off the second-deck facing in right field for a solo homer in the second inning.
"I thought about throwing a few curves and some breaking balls, but then I decided to just go with straight fastballs," said Darvish, who threw two innings of three-hit ball and will anchor Japan's pitching staff in the Beijing Olympics. "I was a little unnerved after Kanemoto hit that home run."
Kanemoto, a 17-year veteran who leads his club with 16 homers and 69 RBIs, later drove in another run and also got it done on defense for the CL squad, throwing out Seibu's G.G. Sato at second in the fourth inning as he tried to stretch a single into a double.
In the bottom of the second, Hiroki Kokubo drove in the tying run off Takahashi with a sacrifice fly to score Tuffy Rhodes, who led off the inning with a single and went to third on a Sato double to deep center.
The PL stars struck for a pair of runs in the fifth off lefty Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi, another veteran 40-year-old from the Tigers. Hichori Morimoto got one run in when he grounded to third and beat the relay to first to avoid a double play, allowing Fighters teammate Kensuke Tanaka to score the go-ahead run from third.
After Morimoto stole second, Lotte's Shoitsu Omatsu drove a ground ball to second that Carp infielder Akihiro Higashide couldn't handle. Morimoto scored on the error.
The Central League jumped ahead in the seventh with three runs off Lions left-hander Kazuyuki Hoashi. Kanemoto hit a bloop RBI single to shallow left and Seiichi Uchikawa and Kazuhiro Wada followed up with RBI singles to give their side a 4-3 lead.
Wada was asked whether he was MVP worthy after driving in the go-ahead--and potential winning--run.
"Nah, give it to Kanemoto-san," said Wada, an outfielder with the Dragons. "He hit the home run. That way everybody will be satisfied."
PL veterans Matsunaka and Yamasaki, however, made it a moot point.
Game 2 goes tonight in Yokohama with the regular season set to resume Sunday.
The PL now leads the All-Star series 74-67-8.