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Rob Smaal

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Lions storm back to win Japan Series

by Rob Smaal (Nov 11, 2008)

TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Prefecture--In the end, it came down to pitching, as it usually does in these situations.

The Seibu Lions used five pitchers on Sunday to shut down the powerful Yomiuri Giants, retiring 24 straight batters after giving up a second-inning solo home run on their way to winning Game 7 of the Japan Series.

The 3-2 victory in the series finale at Tokyo Dome gave the Pacific League champion Lions the franchise's 13th career Japan Series title and its first since 2004. It also produced a couple of unlikely heroes, including utility infielder Hiroshi Hirao.

"We were able to come from behind in the series to win the last two games," said elated first-year Seibu manager Hisanobu Watanabe, a former star pitcher with the club. "I think the reason we were able to come this far is our dislike of losing. We played with the attitude that winning is so much better."

You got that right, skipper.

For the big-spending Giants, on the other hand, the result was a major disappointment. The team splashed out nearly 2 billion yen on high-priced free agents over the offseason in a desperate attempt to claim its first title since 2002 and 21st overall. While the Giants did overhaul the archrival Hanshin Tigers down the stretch to claim the Central League pennant, manager Tatsunori Hara and his charges were left with only one emotion after coming so close.

"It's disappointing," said Hara, who was recently named to pilot Japan in the World Baseball Classic in March.

In Sunday's do-or-die encounter, the Leos fell behind early. Seibu's Fumiya Nishiguchi, making his first start of the series, uncorked a bases-loaded wild pitch in the bottom of the first to give the Giants a 1-0 lead and young shortstop Hayato Sakamoto smacked an opposite-field solo homer to left off the veteran right-hander an inning later to double the lead.

But that was the last time a Giants hitter would reach base Sunday evening. After that it was 24 up, 24 down.

In the top of the fifth, pinch-hitter Hiram Bocachica cranked a solo homer to left off Yomiuri starter Tetsuya Utsumi to make it a one-run game and in the eighth inning things would fall apart for the Kyojin.

Reliever Daisuke Ochi, who Hara had brought in to start the seventh inning, hit speedy leadoff-hitter Yasuyuki Kataoka in the eighth. After stealing second, Kataoka was bunted over to third and, facing a drawn-in infield, Hiroyuki Nakajima then pounded a groundball to third base that allowed Kataoka to score, sliding in safely to beat the throw home.

Ochi then walked the next two batters before Hirao lined an RBI single back up the middle to score Takeya Nakamura from second with what would stand up as the winning run.

Ochi (1-1) would take the loss, allowing a pair of runs on two hits and three walks.

Hirao, who was named one of the series' outstanding players, had three hits--including a home run--and drove in all of his team's runs in Seibu's 4-1 victory in Game 6 on Saturday that squared the series. Not bad for a guy who spent most of the season on the bench this year but was pressed into action after a head injury suffered by first-baseman Craig Brazell.

Coming back to Tokyo Dome down 3-2 in the series, Watanabe used five starting pitchers over the final two games. Most impressive among them was young right-hander Takayuki Kishi, who was named Japan Series MVP.

Kishi, who was masterful in throwing a complete-game, 147-pitch, 10-strikeout shutout victory in Game 4 on Wednesday, came back on just two days' rest to throw 5 2/3 innings of scoreless relief to get the win Saturday.

"I got lots of help from the hitters and on defense and we all played with a lot of heart," said the unimposing 68-kg Kishi, who was 2-0 in the series and 12-4 this season.

A day later, Watanabe sent Nishiguchi to the hill before bringing in veteran Kaz Ishii for two innings of relief, followed by staff ace Hideaki Wakui for a couple of innings. Tomoki Hoshino (1-0) would work an inning to get the win before closer Alex Graman pitched the eighth and ninth to earn the first two-inning save of his career.

Other than the two runs on two hits given up by Nishiguchi, the Giants bats' were silent.

"This was a great series with close, exciting games and it went the full seven," beamed Watanabe. "I'm just happy we came out on top."

Yomiuri outfielder Alex Ramirez, who had some clutch hits in the series, was the recipient of the Fighting Spirit Award, which goes to the top player on the losing team.

Lions shortstop Nakajima and Giants leadoff-hitter Takahiro Suzuki were also recognized for their fine play.

Next up for the Lions is the Asia Series, featuring the league champions from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China. That takes place from Thursday to Sunday at Tokyo Dome.


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