Shinji Takahashi has been struggling at the plate so far this season, but Nippon-Ham manager Masataka Nashida has stuck by his man. On Sunday afternoon, Takahashi repaid his skipper for hanging with him.
Takahashi hit a seventh-inning grand slam off Eagles right-hander Masahiro Tanaka as the Fighters topped Rakuten 7-3, completing a two-game sweep at Hakodate Ocean Stadium in Hokkaido. The teams now have two days off before starting the interleague schedule on Wednesday.
"I really appreciate the manager and coaches sticking with me because I haven't been doing well this year," said Takahashi, a 14-year veteran who went 3-for-4 on the day to bump his average up to .231. "It feels so good. I just really wanted to make the most of that chance with the bases loaded."
A day after aces Yu Darvish of the Fighters and Rakuten's Hisashi Iwakuma staged an epic pitchers' duel, each man going nine scoreless innings before the Hammies won it 1-0 in the bottom of the 10th on an Atsunori Inaba walkoff RBI single, Sunday saw both teams struggle on the mound.
The Fighters used seven different pitchers to get the win. Starter Masaru Takeda went the first three frames, allowing one run on four hits and a pair of walks, and Masao Kida, a 41-year-old veteran who had a forgettable stint in the majors with Detroit, the Dodgers and Seattle, was brought in to work the fourth and fifth innings, also allowing one run.
Hisashi Takeda was credited with a hold for pitching a hitless, scoreless sixth inning for the F's and Keisuke Tanimoto (1-1), Nippon-Ham's fifth pitcher of the afternoon, picked up the win with 1 2/3 scoreless innings of relief.
Eagles starter Tanaka (4-3) did not look sharp in taking the loss. He was battered for seven runs on 12 hits and a pair of walks through 6 2/3 innings. "Ma-kun" got the hook after walking Nioka in the seventh to load the bases then giving up Takahashi's tiebreaking slam to left-center on a belt-high fastball.
The Fighters jumped on Tanaka early, courtesy of an RBI double by Inaba and a run-scoring single by Tomohiro Nioka in the bottom of the first.
Motohiro Shima stroked a none-out, bases-loaded RBI single to left off Masaru Takeda to get one run back in the second and the Eagles tied it 2-2 in the top of the fifth when Andy Phillips lined an RBI single to right. Then, with runners on first and second and two out, Rakuten looked like it might add at least one more in the inning when veteran slugger Takeshi Yamasaki crushed a Kida delivery to center, only to be robbed on a slick running catch by outfielder Hichori Morimoto.
The Fighters went up 3-2 in a dramatic bottom of the fifth that saw Eagles skipper Marty Brown tossed out of the game, a record 10th time Brown has taken an early shower since he began managing in Japan in 2006 with the Hiroshima Carp and the second time already this season.
Morimoto singled off Tanaka and moved to second on an infield groundout by Inaba. Nioka singled to left and Morimoto charged around third and headed for home as outfielder Akihisa Makida made a strong throw to the plate that catcher Shima caught high and a little down the third-base line. Shima's sweep tag missed Morimoto, who crashed home awkwardly after his feet got caught in Shima's.
This brought Brown out of the dugout as he argued the call, to no avail. While Brown did not get into any of the theatrics he has become famous, or rather infamous, for as a manager both here and in the U.S. minor leagues, he did do enough to get the heave-ho from the home-plate umpire.
When the dust settled and play finally resumed, the next play was almost a carbon copy of the Morimoto run. With Nioka on second, Takahashi drilled a ball to left that Makida scooped up and threw home. This time, however, Nioka was called out at the plate, although he argued that Shima had again missed the tag. Fighters manager Masataka Nashida came out this time to make the case, but the inning was over. Replays were inconclusive.
After Tanimoto intentionally walked Teppei Tsuchiya to face Phillips in the top of the seventh, the former New York Yankee made him pay by driving in the tying run with a single up the middle for his second RBI of the day.
In the bottom half of the seventh, Tanaka loaded the bases on two singles and a walk before Takahashi took him out of the yard to win it for the Hammies.
Takahashi and Inaba had three hits apiece for Nippon-Ham while Morimoto had two hits and scored three runs. Nioka was 2-for-3 with a walk and a pair of RBIs.
On Saturday, Darvish struck out 11 in his 156-pitch outing, lowering his ERA to 1.69. Iwakuma's ERA dropped to 2.42. He struck out seven and did not issue a walk. Darvish allowed six hits while Iwakuma gave up seven while throwing 127 pitches.