Japan's champions got off to a losing start on Thursday at Tokyo Dome as the Saitama Seibu Lions lost 4-3 to South Korea's SK Wyverns at the Asia Series 2008.
Lee Jae Won put the Korean club in front with a tie-breaking, two-run home run in the fourth inning off Lions lefty Kazuyuki Hoashi.
"Coming in as the Japan champions and losing is extremely hard to take," said the Lions' Hiroshi Hirao, who singled in two of Seibu's three runs against Wyverns ace Kim Kwang Hyun.
Although the South Korean MVP failed to rack up his second win here in two attempts against a Japanese club, the Wyverns got a head start on the race to reach Sunday's final.
"He's their ace, and although he was clearly not at his best, he has some very good pitches," said Lions manager Hisanobu Watanabe.
Kim, who beat the Chunichi Dragons here in the Wyverns opener last season, beat Japan in the semifinals of the Beijing Olympics.
The Korean national team also beat Japan in the preliminary round when Kim started but got no decision.
The lefty came out after putting the potential go-ahead run on with two outs in the fifth inning. But the Lions could not touch the Wyverns relievers and that was the game.
"Their relievers brought some good stuff and we'll have to make some adjustments if we face them again," Watanabe said.
The Lions got on the board in the first inning when Hirao plated Shogo Akada with an RBI single.
The Korean champs tied it in the bottom of the second off Hoashi. Park Jae Hong nicked the foul pole for a solo homer that brought Watanabe from the bench after the umpires gave conflicting rulings.
It was the only hit Hoashi allowed until Lee Jin Young singled up the middle to open the fourth. Lee Jae Won followed with a shot that also hit the pole down the left-field line for a two-run home run. A walk to Park and back-to-back, one-out singles made it 4-1 and spelled the end of the evening for Hoashi.
"My pitching was too monotonous," said Hoashi, who went 11-6 with a career-best 2.63 ERA this season.
"It's Hoashi's style to put a lot of runners on and then get tough," Watanabe said. "However, tonight, he missed a pitch and their batter didn't.
"It could have gone either way right until the end, so I think it was a good game. Now we just have to do our best in the next to games, because we intend to be in the final."
Tetsuya Iwasaki got the Lions out of the inning with a double play.
Seibu knocked Kim from the mound in the top of the fifth, but couldn't even the score against their Korean nemesis.
With one out and a runner on first, left fielder Park Jae Sang misplayed a sinking liner to left into an RBI double for Takumi Kuriyama. Ironically, Park had picked up an RBI in the fourth when Kuriyama made a poor throw from left field.
"My throw had allowed them to score, so I was happy to do something to make up for that," Kuriyama said.
Hirao, who drove in six runs in 16 postseason at-bats this autumn, followed with his second RBI single.
With cleanup hitter Takeya Nakamura at the plate, Hirao advanced to second on a wild pitch and to third on an errant pickoff throw by Kim. The lefty walked Nakamura, forcing Wyverns skipper Kim Sung Kun to go to his relievers, who shut down the Lions.
A crowd of 9,277 attended the Lions-Wyverns game, the lowest attendance yet for an Asia Series game featuring the Japan Series champion. The previous low was in 2006, when 11,038 came to see the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters beat Taiwan's La New Bears 2-1 in the preliminary round.