CHIBA--Amid a deluge of stories about manager Bobby Valentine's future with the club, the Chiba Lotte Marines focused on the here and now on Thursday, presenting their skipper with a much-needed win over the Pacific League's top team.
Toshiaki Imae homered in the seventh to break up a tie, and reliever Yusuke Kawasaki (2-4) worked out of trouble, striking out three along the way, as the Marines edged the Saitama Seibu Lions 4-3 before 16,534 at Chiba Marine Stadium.
Imae took an 0-2 pitch out opposite way to right field to put the Marines back on top after the Lions had just rallied to tie the score.
"He swung at two balls, and with two strikes and no balls, they tried to sneak a fastball by him," said Valentine, who this week voiced his desire to return as skipper after his contract ends after this season. "And he's just been a terrific hitter for us this entire season and hit a big home run No. 12."
The fifth-place Marines, 1-1/2 games out of a Climax Series playoff spot, kept pace with the two teams in the running for the third and final playoff spot.
Despite the standings, Valentine said his team, which took two of three here against Seibu, is in good shape for a playoff run.
"I just think we're playing extremely well, and I like the health of our team and the attitude of our team. And I'll take my chances the rest of the way with them," he said.
Meanwhile, the injury bug has bitten Saitama Seibu, which was missing three starters. G.G. Sato (ankle) came on as a pinch-hitter but started on the bench, while slugger Craig Brazell (shoulder) and Hiram Bocachica (back) have both been deactivated.
As a result, the Lions looked toothless over the first five innings, but they got to starter Naoyuki Shimizu in the sixth, and knocked him out in the seventh.
Lions starter Hideaki Wakui (8-9) battled without his best stuff, allowing the biggest of nine hits--Imae's homer--on his 127th and final pitch.
The Marines made Wakui work from the first at-bat. Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who had three hits and scored twice, saw six pitches before whacking a single into right field to lead off the first.
Shunichi Nemoto drew a walk one out later and Tasuku Hashimoto plated Nishioka with a sacrifice fly to right before Wakui got out of the first inning, having thrown 29 pitches.
Jose Ortiz doubled after the first two went down in the second inning and No. 9 batter Daisuke Hayakawa singled to right to chase him home for a 2-0 advantage.
"It was my first start in a while and right off the bat I came up with a runner in scoring position. In that situation, I was desperate to get a hit," Hayakawa said.