Keiichi Hirano set himself up to be the goat with his bat on Sunday. He wound up as a hero with his glove.
Three poor bunts by Japan's most successful sacrifice bunter cost his team three lead runners, but the second baseman's diving stop to start a ninth-inning double play helped Hanshin seal a 1-0 victory over the Yomiuri Giants and move into second place in the Central League before Japan's biggest crowd this season. The win pushed the Tigers one game ahead of the third-place Giants.
"I had to do something after what I did [failing to bunt]," Hirano said. "It feels good to contribute to the win in the end."
With runners on first and second with no outs in the ninth, Shigeyuki Furuki twice fouled off bunts before hitting a hard roller toward the right of second base that looked like it would get through the shallow infield for a game-tying RBI single.
Hirano, however, dove to his right, made the stop and flipped to shortstop Takashi Toritani, whose throw to first completed a double play.
With 46,972 looking on, both clubs were stifled by the starting pitching. Tigers lefty Atsushi Nomi (4-0) hijacked the Giants for seven innings, while Dicky Gonzalez held Hanshin to a run over 6-2/2 innings.
"We really didn't have many scoring chances worthy of the name," Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said. "A bunt at that point and we could have taken command. Furuki failed that assignment, and when it looked like things would turn out OK, Hirano robbed us."
The Tigers bench broke up a scoreless pitchers' duel in the bottom of the seventh, with Shinjiro Hiyama, Hanshin's all-time, pinch-hit leader, singling home the run.
Tomoaki Kanemoto started things with a one-out, pinch-hit double off Gonzalez (5-11). Pinch-runner Hiroki Uemoto then took third on a fly to medium-deep center.
Hiyama, who broke the franchise's old record of 108 on June 4, batted for Nomi and looped a first-pitch fastball into shallow right to extend his team-record total to 117.
The Tigers failed to get a runner to third against him until the sixth inning, when Matt Murton had his second leadoff hit of the game.
Murton, who went 3-for-4 to raise his average to .353, opened the game with a basehit, setting a single-season team record with his 192nd hit. When center fielder Tetsuya Matsumoto fumbled the ball, Murton went to second.
"It's a great honor," Murton said of the record. "I'm thankful to the coaching staff for the opportunity to play."
However, he was cut down at third when Hirano bunted sharply back to Gonzalez.
In the sixth, catcher Shinnosuke Abe pounced on a short Hirano bunt to force Murton at second. When Toritani's grounder to the right snuck past the glove of Giants second baseman Edgar Gonzalez, the Tigers had runners on the corners and the Koshien crowd let loose for the first time.
Takahiro Arai, who has hit Gonzalez well in recent seasons, (9-for-30 since 2006), walked to bring up Craig Brazell, who leads the league with 44 homers. With expectations at maximum, Brazell continued his struggles against Gonzalez, hitting into an inning-ending double play that left him 1-for-16 with nine strikeouts against the right-hander.
The Giants came within a meter of taking the lead in the top of the seventh. A good running catch by Murton in left field prevented Ryota Wakiya from reaching with one out. After Gonzalez singled, Hayato Sakamoto drove a pitch well into the seats in left but just foul before flying out on the 11th pitch of his at-bat and Nomi's last one of the afternoon.
Tigers right-hander Tomoyuki Kubota retired the Giants in order in the top of the eighth, and Murton appeared to set the Tigers up for an insurance run in the home half.
Against righty Yuya Kubo, Murton drilled third baseman Wakiya with a shot that ricocheted into shallow center and was ruled a double. Once more, however, Hirano, with 53 successful sacrifices this season, helped the Giants pull the plug.
Tigers closer Kyuji Fujikawa allowed a leadoff single in the ninth to Abe, and Kenji Yano, unable to get a bunt down as Hara played to tie the score, singled with two strikes. This allowed Hara to go for the win.
Hirano, however, intervened and Fujikawa struck Wakiya out on eight pitches to record his 26th save.
In Yokohama, the Hiroshima Carp banged out 24 hits, their highest total in more than six years, in a 16-6 demolition of the BayStars.
In other baseball news:
--Former BayStars lefty Naoya Okamoto, 27, has signed a minor league contract with the New York Yankees for next season. Okamoto pitched in Mexico this year after being released by Yokohama in December.