TOKOROZAWA, Saitama--Never has Akira Eto done so much with so little--at least not recently.
Injuries forced the 38-year-old reserve into a rare start in the cleanup spot on Thursday and he hit the jackpot, slugging a tie-breaking solo homer in the fifth inning as the Saitama Seibu Lions beat the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters 5-3 to stop a three-game slide and tighten the strings in the Pacific League playoff race.
Eto's shot was his second in as many nights and his sixth in 85 at-bats, giving him his highest homer total since hitting 17 with the Yomiuri Giants in 2003.
"We lost last night, but this homer helped contribute to a victory so I'm really happy about it," said Eto, whose longball totals since 2004 were a less-than-impressive four, zero, five and three. And those meager totals came in more than 85 at-bats.
"It was a good time to get a home run," said Eto, who hit five homers in 71 at-bats in his first year with Hiroshima in 1990.
The Lions are still just 3-6 this month, but they got an encouraging outing by ace Hideaki Wakui (9-9), who persevered through mediocre stuff--allowing three runs on seven hits, a walk and a hit batter--to even his record with 111 arduous pitches.
"[Wakui] gave up some early runs, but he got it together and did a good job of keeping us in the game, and we picked him up with some runs," said Lions skipper Hisanobu Watanabe, whose team reduced its magic number to clinch the PL title to 13.
Closer Alex Graman worked a perfect ninth for his 27th save to preserve Olympian Wakui's first win since he beat Rakuten on July 22.
Nippon Ham starter Brian Sweeney (11-4), who hadn't lost since Chiba Lotte beat him 5-2 on July 8, wasn't sharp from his first pitch. He walked three in the first inning and left after serving up Yasuyuki Kataoka's two-run homer in the sixth that gave the Lions a 5-2 cushion.
Sweeney had thrown five consecutive quality starts of six or more innings and three runs or fewer allowed. But he took the loss, yielding all five runs on six hits and five walks, while fanning one.
"We did a good job of taking advantage of the opportunities they gave us with the walks; the batters got those runners home and that was big for us," Watanabe said.
Losses by second-place SoftBank and Lotte kept the Fighters alone in third place, a half-game in front of Fukuoka.
The Fighters jumped on Wakui right off the bat, pushing across a run in the first inning on a pair of doubles. Kensuke Tanaka opened the game with a two-bagger but was erased on Hichori Morimoto's failed sacrifice bunt. Morimoto, though, raced around to score on Atsunori Inaba's gapper to left-center field for a 1-0 Nippon Ham lead.
The Lions came right back with a run to tie it. Takeya Nakamura didn't have to lift the bat off his shoulders to pick up a cheap RBI--his 81st--as Sweeney walked two to load the bases and issued the Lions slugger a free pass to force in the tying run.