Hideaki Wakui pitched the Saitama Seibu Lions into their first Japan Series in four years on Wednesday.
The 22-year-old did not allow a runner for 6-2/3 innings as the Lions wrapped up the second stage of the Pacific League Climax Series with a 9-0 victory over the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters at Seibu Dome.
The Lions, who received a one-game advantage in the best-of-seven series, wrapped it up in five games as Taketoshi Goto backed Wakui with a homer and four RBIs.
Wakui (2-0), who had never pitched a one-hitter, lost his bid for top honors in the seventh inning on Atsunori Inaba's two-out line single. Through six, the right-hander had struck out three and got the Fighters to hit into 15 easy outs.
That changed in the seventh. Center fielder Shogo Akada robbed leadoff hitter Kensuke Tanaka on a fly to the gap in left, drawing a standing ovation from the Lions fans.
A grounder to second kept the no-hit bid intact, but a cutter down the pipe to Inaba, starting his first game since hurting a calf muscle on Oct. 11, snapped Wakui's hitless string.
"I thought it was over on that fly by Kensuke," Wakui said. "When it did happen--well, frankly, I didn't think I was capable of it [a no-hitter] in the first place. It was appropriate that Inaba was the one to do it, since he came back for this game."
The hit also prevented the possibility of the Fighters ending in their season in a perfect defeat for the second straight year. Their 2007 season ended in Game 5 of the Japan Series, when Chunichi's Daisuke Yamai and Hitoki Iwase combined on a perfect game in the Series clincher.
Against Wakui, the Fighters finished with three hits.
"When I came back to the dugout in the eighth, the manager was waiting for me. I thought he was going to take me out," said Wakui, who was named Climax Series MVP.
"Instead, he said 'I'm leaving it up to you.' I hadn't thrown that many pitches so I was ready to bring it up a notch in the ninth."
The game ended with Inaba swinging at a 3-2 fastball out of the zone. It was the only time Wakui had that many balls in a count.
"I focused on getting ahead of the hitters," said Wakui, who struck out seven--all after he had a lead to work with.
"I didn't finish the season in very good form, but this is a different challenge. Perhaps I'm more on top of things because it's a bigger stage, or maybe it's because we are getting to the very end of our quest."
Goto, whose career was in danger of ending until he broke through this season, homered to put the Lions ahead in the second off Fighters starter Ryan Glynn (0-2). With two out and none on, Goto belted his second home run of the series off Glynn, who lost to Wakui in Game 1.
"In this series, whoever had scored first won," Goto said. "With that in mind, I was able to put a perfect swing on the ball."
An inning later, his two-run single capped the Lions' four-run knockout blow. He also walked, and his eighth-inning double plated an insurance run.
"This is an unbelievable feeling," said Goto, who because of his poor defense was exiled to the Eastern League for four years following a useful 2003 rookie season.
After pulling his game together on the farm, he was recalled this summer and had a strong half season, batting .301 with 12 homers and a .370 on base percentage.
"I keep last year's bitter memories with me, for motivation," Goto said. "I never want to lose that."
The Lions applied the final turns of the screw in the bottom of the eighth, when Takumi Kuriyama tripled home Shogo Akada and Yasuyuki Kataoka just after Kataoka stole his second base of the game.
Hiroyuki Nakajima, who had singled in Seibu's second run of the game, brought Kuriyama home with a ground ball to second.
The Fighters got two hits off Wakui in the ninth, but it did little to delay Seibu's progress to the final stage--a road that has not been without its anxiety.
"We didn't play well at the end of the regular season," said rookie Lions manager Hisanobu Watanabe. "But we went to Nango [in Miyazaki Prefecture], regrouped and came back as one.
"From the very beginning, our goal was to be No. 1 in Japan. Now we head into the Japan Series united as one."