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John E. Gibson

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Iwakuma hurls Eagles by Orix

by John E. Gibson (Apr 19, 2009)

Tohoku Rakuten Eagles ace Hisashi Iwakuma asked out of his Opening Day start because of fatigue. Now he's just wearing out opposing batters.

Iwakuma (2-1), showing no ill-effects of his World Baseball Classic experience, baffled Orix for eight innings of a 7-0 shutout Saturday in a Buffaloes' home game before 20,598 at Tokyo Dome.

Daisuke Kusano provided run support, going 3-for-4--including a two-run blast in the sixth inning--and raising his average to a gaudy.647 that helped Iwakuma extend his personal winning streak against Orix to four.

But the star of the day was Iwakuma, who retired his last 21 batters faced. He surrendered three hits but nothing else reached the outfield as he recorded 19 groundball outs and had five strikeouts with no walks.

"I was able to find a good rhythm today and we scored, so I just wanted to battle and it was a good game for us," said Iwakuma, in his 10th season.

"I just tried to keep the ball down because this is a place where home runs fly out, so I had it in my mind to keep everything low," said Iwakuma, who gave up two singles in the first inning and one in the second before shutting the Buffaloes down.

Marcus Gwyn worked the ninth and protected Rakuten's second shutout win as the fifth-year club continued its best-ever April.

"We're off to a good start but there's a long way to go. We just want to battle each and every day," said Iwakuma, who last season led Japan in wins and ERA and won the Sawamura Award as Japan's top pitcher.

"The ground balls really show he was on because he's not a strikeout pitcher," Rakuten skipper Katsuya Nomura said.

"The second half of the game he showed what he can do," said Nomura, who had nothing to complain about after a victory that assured the Eagles of sharing first place with Nippon Ham in the Pacific League.

"This was the ideal situation. He [Iwakuma] was sharp and the batters produced runs."

Iwakuma also got strong play behind him. Yosuke Takasu made a couple of sparkling plays on nubbers, and Kusano made a nice pickup and long throw to save Iwakuma at least three runners.

After blowing a late lead in their last game, an 11-7 extra-inning loss at Chiba, runs were at a premium early on.

Offseason pickup Norihiro Nakamura got the scoring going in the first inning off his former team. The slugger took a pitch back through the box for a two-out RBI single that plated Naoto Watanabe for a 1-0 Rakuten lead.

Orix starter Kazuki Kondo (2-1) kept the Buffaloes close until the sixth, when Kusano took him deep to right field after the eighth-year righty issued a two-out free pass to Takeshi Yamasaki.

"I'm glad I was able to hit a home run in that spot," said Kusano, a fourth-year infielder who has collected 11 hits in five games--four of them starts.

Kondo, who had won seven straight decisions dating back to last season, suffered his first loss since June 29. He worked 7-1/3 innings, allowing four runs on six hits and four walks, while fanning two.

Rakuten got a pair of RBI singles from Akihisa Makida and pinch-hitter Koichi Nakashima before Watanabe's two-run double capped a four-run eighth inning.


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