Yakult Swallows pitcher Yoshinori Sato was a real party-pooper in his homecoming Sunday as his performance on the mound at Kleenex Stadium left a packed house with a bad case of the baseball blues.
Sato (2-5) outdueled another young hotshot right-hander, Masahiro Tanaka, as the Swallows completed a two-game sweep of the Rakuten Eagles with a scrappy 3-1 come-from-behind victory over the home team.
Last year, Sato, a native of Sendai, lost in an interleague matchup with Tanaka. Things worked out better for him this time around, however.
"I guess it was my turn (to win) today," said Sato, who held Rakuten to one run on five hits and three walks through 7 2/3 innings, in which he threw 128 pitches.
The game marked the second straight day the Swallows knocked off one of Rakuten's dual aces. On Saturday, Yakult beat Hisashi Iwakuma 4-1.
Sunday's win, coupled with Yokohama's 7-2 loss to Orix, saw the Swallows climb out of the Central League cellar.
Yakult now has an 8-4-1 record since interim manager Junji Ogawa took the reins from Shigeru Takada on May 27. They are 8-13-1 against Pacific League opposition with a pair of rainout make-up games set for Monday and Tuesday at Jingu.
On Sunday, the afternoon started out with a little drama as an earthquake measuring 6.2 at its epicenter in Fukushima shook Kleenex Stadium 30 minutes before the opening pitch. No damage done, but the shaker did send a few fans scurrying out of their seats in panic.
Once the game got underway, Sato and Tanaka went toe-to-toe in a good, old-fashioned pitchers' duel. Sato was perfect through his first three frames, not allowing a run until a solo homer in the fifth, while Tanaka was also getting it done for Marty Brown's club, keeping the visitors off the board through seven innings.
Things turned in favor of the Swallows in a fateful eighth. Speedster Kazuki Fukuchi beat out an infield single off Tanaka to get things started, and Norichika Aoki followed with a double to right to put men on second and third with none out. Hiroyasu Tanaka grounded out to short, but the runners were forced to hold.
Rakuten skipper Brown then paid a visit to the mound with sluggers Aaron Guiel and Jamie D'Antona coming up, but Tanaka stayed in the game to face the big boys. Guiel drew a walk with first base open to load 'em up and D'Antona then delivered a sacrifice fly to left to tie it at a run apiece.
The next batter, Yasushi Iihara, was walked on four pitches by Tanaka to reload the bases before Ryoji Aikawa also drew a walk, forcing in another run and putting the Swallows up 2-1.
It could have been worse for the Eagles. The next batter, Shinya Miyamoto, hit a soft liner to center and Ryo Hijirisawa ran in and made a shoetop catch to end the inning. It appeared, however, that Hijirisawa may have taken the ball on the short hop, bringing Yakult manager Ogawa out of the dugout to argue the call. Replays were inconclusive and the call stood.
The Eagles threatened to get back on even terms in the bottom half. After Teppei Tsuchiya and Norihiro Nakamura hit back-to-back two-out singles, Sato was lifted and Ogawa brought in Kenichi Matsuoka to face aging slugger Takeshi Yamasaki, whose 15th home run of the season, a solo shot in the fifth, had given the home team a 1-0 lead. This time, however, Yamasaki went down looking at a called third strike with the count full.
"It was good that I was able to keep us in it (for seven-plus innings) and I felt my effort was rewarded when we went ahead late in the game," Sato said.
Yakult got some insurance in the ninth off reliever Hiroshi Katayama when Aoki hit a two-out single and Hiroyasu Tanaka drove him in with an RBI double to left.
Swallows closer Lim Chang-yong worked a 1-2-3 ninth to get his 10th save of the season.