Hideki Asai has come a long way in a short time.
Rescued from the Eastern League by a July 26 trade, Asai (2-1) pitched six scoreless innings to help the Yomiuri Giants beat the Hanshin Tigers 3-0 on Sunday. Yomiuri completed a three-game sweep and pulled to within winning percentage points of the first-place Tigers.
"Being asked to pitch a game of this importance, a game against Hanshin, I wanted to do whatever I could to help us sweep the series," said Asai, who had thrown 76 innings for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles this year, all but 4-1/3 of those on the farm team.
"I put all my emotion into each pitch. The ball was jumping around, and I walked too many batters, but I'm glad I was able to shut them down."
Asai, who surrendered four singles and issued four walks, stranded five runners over the first two innings. He gave up a leadoff single in each of the next two innings, but was helped out in those frames by double plays.
With his 146-kph fastball and good curve proving difficult to control, Asai said he let catcher Shinnosuke Abe take command.
"The curve was good, but I just left that up to Abe," said the 26-year-old. "Things worked out, so I won't complain."
Asai issued a two-out walk in the first inning. A single by Takahiro Arai brought up 37-homer man Craig Brazell. After working him inside with fastballs, Asai got the lefty-swinger to ground out on a curve away.
The Giants then needed four pitches to get on the board against Randy Messenger (3-3). Hayato Sakamoto drilled a low-inside fastball for a leadoff home run, his 24th of the year.
"He fell behind in the count 1-2, so that was a great result for him and for us," Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said.
Sakamoto singled to lead off the third, when the Giants scored two runs despite a self-inflicted wound. After Sakamoto reached, Yoshitomo Tani bunted him to second. Messenger tried for the lead runner in vain, giving the Giants a golden opportunity they nearly wasted.
Hara called on slugger Michihiro Ogasawara to sacrifice. The two-time MVP, with one career sacrifice bunt to his credit, flew out to the pitcher, who easily doubled off Tani.
Alex Ramirez, however, rescued the situation by singling up the middle to plate Sakamoto. After a wild pitch sent Ramirez to second, the Tigers walked Abe intentionally, but Edgar Gonzalez's ground single scored Ramirez to make it 3-0.
With the help of Asai's wildness, the Tigers continued to threaten. Shun Fujikawa's one-out walk in the fourth brought Kodai Sakurai up as a pinch-hitter for Messenger.
Although Sakurai and Asai had been high school teammates at Osaka's PL Gakuen, the pitcher said Sakurai's presence in the batter's box didn't change anything.
"My job was to defeat the Tigers' lineup," Asai said. "So it wouldn't make any sense to be particularly conscious of one hitter."
Sakurai offered at Asai's first pitch, a low curve, and smacked a grounder to the left side of the infield. Ogasawara at third did well to cut the ball off and start an inning-ending double play.
"When we really needed them, we were able to come up with big double plays," Hara said.
It was a turning point for Asai, who retired six of the last seven batters he faced before being removed for a pinch-hitter.
"I was able to get back on track, that was the best thing today," Asai said.
For Hara, whose starting pitching has struggled since July, Asai's acquisition was a welcome one.
"He is unlike our other starting pitchers, so he's a big addition," the skipper said.
Yuya Kubo, Tetsuya Yamaguchi and Marc Kroon completed the six-hit shutout with a scoreless inning each. Kroon worked a 1-2-3 ninth for his 18th save.
The Giants, who dropped three games in Nagoya last week, will get a shot at revenge starting on Tuesday, when the third-place Chunichi Dragons visit Tokyo Dome.
"They beat us with good pitching in Nagoya. I'm eager to see us take it to them this time," Hara said. "We have good pitchers. I think they can get the job done."
The Dragons fell 1-1/2 games behind the Giants after a 3-2 loss to the Swallows at Nagoya Dome.
Yasushi Iihara's one-out, ninth-inning single completed a comeback against Dragons closer Hitoki Iwase (1-2) as Tokyo Yakult scored twice in the inning.
Swallows closer Lim Chang Yong nearly returned the favor in the bottom of the ninth, walking two with two outs to load the bases. Lim, however, struck out Atsushi Fujii to record his 26th save.
In Pacific League action, Eiichi Koyano and Tomohiro Nioka hit two-run, first-inning singles as the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters beat the Saitama Seibu Lions 4-1 and completed a three-game sweep of their series at Sapporo Dome.
The Fighters' victory was their first against Seibu southpaw Kazuyuki Hoashi (10-8) since Aug. 10, 2008. Fighters southpaw Masaru Takeda (11-6) allowed an unearned run over the distance as he reached a career high in wins.