Feeling no pain for the first time in a while, Norihiro Nakamura propelled the Dragons into the postseason for the third straight year with a three-run home run off Giants closer Marc Kroon on Saturday.
"That at-bat, I didn't feel any pain in my lower back at all. It was the first time for me this season," Nakamura said after his ninth-inning homer broke up a tie game in Chunichi's 4-3 victory over Yomiuri at Tokyo Dome.
The Dragons won their season-high seventh straight game and wrapped up third place in the Central League. Chunichi began the day needing a win or a Hiroshima loss to lock up the CL's final playoff spot and got both--with Hiroshima losing minutes before the Dragons' game ended.
The Giants--who have already clinched at least second place--fell a half-game behind in their dogfight for first with the Hanshin Tigers, who later played to a 12-inning tie against Tokyo Yakult.
A pitchers' duel between Dragons lefty Masahiro Yamamoto and Giants right-hander Seth Greisinger left the game tied in the late innings. With the middle of the Dragons order up in the ninth, Giants skipper Tatsunori Hara went with his best.
"When your opponent has his best batters, you want your strongest pitcher," Hara said of calling on Kroon.
The hard-throwing right-hander, however, couldn't find the zone. He walked the first two batters before a strikeout brought Nakamura to the plate.
"The manager reminded me to put my kind of swing on the ball," said Nakamura, who was the MVP of last year's Japan Series.
A wild pitch on Kroon's first delivery put the go-ahead run on third and Nakamura was just looking for a sacrifice fly against Kroon, who had not allowed a home run since Sept. 15, 2007.
"A fly ball to the outfield would have been fine with me," Nakamura said. "With men on second and third and with Kroon on the mound, I was satisfied to be able to get a good, hard swing."
Daisuke Ochi got the Giants out of the inning, and the hosts nearly turned it around against Dragons closer Hitoki Iwase, who got little help from umpire Masanobu Sasaki. While Kroon had been unable to throw a strike, Sasaki seemed unwilling to call any on the outside corner for Iwase. After Alex Ramirez's one-out double, Iwase's attack on the outside edge resulted in two walks and a two-out, bases-loaded jam. Hayato Sakamoto singled in two runs for the Giants, but Iwase nailed down his 36th save.
Despite winning seven straight, Nakamura said the Dragons needed to pick up the pace.
"We have to keep at it, win them all and go into the Climax Series on a roll," Nakamura said. "This is not about my being the hero or not, but about doing whatever you can in each instant to contribute to the victory.
"Today, I was able to do that, so I'm satisfied, but it's not over."
Dragons manager Hiromitsu Ochiai was less than ecstatic.
"After all we've been through, we're in [the playoffs], but the way we are winning is not the way strong teams win," he said. "Things happened here and there that leave me dissatisfied.
"You can be satisfied if you win 144 games, and you should have that goal. But this win doesn't give us room to rest."
The Dragons jumped on the scoreboard in the second inning, when Masahiko Morino jumped on a high 2-0 pitch from Greisinger for his 19th home run of the year.
Greisinger, who allowed five hits and no walks over eight innings, found himself even after Michihiro Ogasawara led off with his 35th homer of the year.
Ogasawara hit Yamamoto's first pitch of the fourth inning, but the Giants could do no more in Yamamoto's seven innings.
The Chunichi veteran limited Yomiuri to five hits, with no walks and four strikeouts.
"We really battled at the end, but you would have liked to see that earlier," Hara said. "You can't just wait until it's too late."