Despite starting with a one-game disadvantage, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters got even on Sunday.
Terrmel Sledge hammered a three-run homer and pitching and defense secured a 7-4 win over the Saitama Seibu Lions at Seibu Dome. The Game 3 victory evened the best-of-seven second stage of the Pacific League's Climax Series 2-2.
Eiichi Koyano had two hits and scored twice against lefty Kazuyuki Hoashi, and made two excellent stops at third base to keep the Lions from catching up.
"He makes plays at third I haven't seen anyone make," said the left-handed hitting Sledge, who was dropped to the fifth spot with Koyano moving up to No. 4.
"It's just exciting. It's all about wining, not about individual statistics, so this is more fun."
The Fighters are now two wins away from returning to the Japan Series for the third straight season and becoming the first third-place team to get that far.
Fighters starter Masaru Takeda, didn't allow a hit through four innings. With a five-run lead, the Lions hit him hard in the fifth, but Koyano made an excellent stop at third to record the first out and limit the damage. Center fielder Hichori Morimoto made a good over-the-shoulder grab to end what could have been a big inning.
In the sixth, reliever Kazuhito Tadano put two on with no outs, but Koyano got the first out on a diving stop and great throw behind right-hander Hisashi Takeda, who worked two scoreless innings. Shortstop Makoto Kaneko converted a tough chance for the third out to keep a runner on third from scoring.
"Our fielding was just superb," Fighters skipper Masataka Nashida said. "To hold them to a run after having two on and no out was big.
"I thought I'd get an inning out of Tadano, but he couldn't throw strikes. To his credit, Hisashi was ready to go in a hurry and was sharp."
After their four-run, third-inning haymaker, the Fighters went down 1-2-3 over four straight innings. Hoashi lasted five, allowing four runs, three earned, and Koji Onuma allowed a run on one hit in 2-1/3 impressive innings.
Hichori Morimoto opened the eighth against Onuma with a single and was sacrificed to second. Kensuke Tanaka tripled off the only pitch Koji Mitsui threw to make it 6-3. An extreme small-ball attack added a run in the eighth. A leadoff walk, a two-strike sacrifice, a single and a squeeze-bunt single by pinch-hitter Yuji Iiyama gave the Fighters a four-run cushion.
Yoshinori Tateyama pitched a sharp eighth for the Fighters, and closer Micheal Nakamura survived a three-hit, one-run ninth to seal the win.
The Fighters, who went 2-8-1 at Seibu Dome during the regular season, made it two straight here after dropping Friday's second-stage opener in a blowout at Omiya.
"With Darvish yesterday, we were able to unwind and go on the attack," Nashida said. "That carried over to today."
Although Nippon Ham had beaten Hoashi four times this year, all four wins had come at Sapporo Dome. Koyano, 7-for-12 with a double and two homers off the lefty this season, started the Fighters attack with a second-inning double. First base umpire Satoru Kakizono initially called Koyano's ball foul--to the irritation of Lions manager Hisanobu Watanabe, who gave the veteran ump five minutes of abuse.
Koyano scored on Jason Botts' tough grounder, that Lions third baseman Takeya Nakamura was harshly given an error on. After another Fighters' second run scored in the third, Koyano singled ahead of Sledge's third postseason homer.
"I've just had good timing off him [Hoashi] this year," Koyano said. "He's the kind of quality pitcher who if you don't get a hit, you think that's normal.
"I was a little nervous about batting fourth, but I figured somebody has to do it."