In the first Climax Series game ever played at venerable Koshien Stadium, a local boy made good--for the visiting Yomiuri Giants.
Hayato Sakamoto homered, scored twice and preserved a two-run lead with his glove as the Giants beat the Hanshin Tigers 3-1 in Game 1 of the Central League postseason opener on Saturday.
Sakamoto, who grew up in nearby Itami, tied the game with a solo homer off left-handed nemesis Atsushi Nomi. He doubled and scored a crucial run in the fifth and saved the day with an over-the-shoulder catch in the eighth.
With two outs and the bases loaded in the eighth inning, lefty Tetsuya Yamaguchi jammed Craig Brazell, whose bat nearly died a hero as the ball looped toward shallow center.
"I felt there was no way that ball was getting away from me," said Sakamoto, who ended the inning with a third of the ball showing from the webbing of his glove.
"At crucial moments, our defense came up big," said Giants manager Tatsunori Hara, whose team can clinch the best-of-three series here today.
Right-hander Shun Tono got off to a shaky start, falling behind one hitter after another, but held the Tigers scoreless until Brazell pulled a first-pitch slider into the right-field stands in the second inning.
"When Brazell hit that home run, I woke up," said Tono, who allowed two hits, walked one and a hit a batter in five innings to earn the victory.
The Giants, who spoiled solid scoring opportunities in each of the first two innings with double play groundballs, finally got to Nomi in the third.
The right-hander, who had won seven straight decisions against the Giants, lacked command of his forkball and was soon pitching deep into counts, throwing 74 pitches through three innings.
With one out in the third, Sakamoto battled Nomi for seven pitches.
"I had a full count and could have tried to work a walk, but my style is to be aggressive," Sakamoto said.
He drove a 3-2 fastball into Koshien's distant stands and the Giants added another run in the inning. Yoshiyuki Kamei singled, took second on a wild pitch and scored on the first of three singles by Michihiro Ogasawara.
"This is the kind of game we came here to play," Ogasawara said.
With one out in the fifth, Sakamoto doubled and went to third when right fielder Lin Wei-chu fumbled the ball. Nomi got a tailor-made grounder that froze Sakamoto, but Ogasawara followed with a liner just over the head of second baseman Katsuhiko Saka to make it 3-1.
With a two-run lead in the sixth, Hara 's defensive alignment. Right-hander Dicky Gonzalez came in for 2-2/2 scoreless innings, thanks to the quality leather Hara provided him.
"I felt really good today," Gonzalez said. "The defense played great."
Tetsuya Matsumoto, in center since the sixth inning, hustled in and made a superb rolling catch that robbed Brazell of a leadoff single in the seventh.
Gonzalez left a man on in the inning, and got more help in the eighth. Ryota Wakiya had barely come off the bench when he made a solid stop on a grounder to third, taking a potential leadoff single from pinch-hitter Kentaro Sekimoto.
"You come in the game and you're prepared, but before you can get settled there's a tough play you have to make," Wakiya said. "Afterward, I felt like, 'OK, bring it on.'"
The out proved critical. With two down, Keiichi Hirano singled and Matt Murton walked to send Gonzalez packing. Yuya Kubo, his replacement, was removed after walking Takahiro Arai on four pitches to juice the bags.
Yamaguchi came on to face the left-handed-hitting Brazell with the potential tying run on second. A slider up and in left Brazell holding just the handle. With the crowd of 46,868 cranked to maximum volume, the ball arced toward center only for Sakamoto to crush Hanshin's hopes.
"Our pitching and defense was in sync today," Hara said. "Matsumoto, Wakiya, the guys who were on the field for their gloves came through. And that was one heck of a play from Sakamoto."
Yamaguchi allowed a pinch-hit single in the ninth but finished for his first Climax Series save.
The Hanshin bullpen, too, was able to get the job done, but the Tigers' failure was in not punishing Tono's early lack of control.
"We had our chance," batting coach Yutaka Wada said. "For three innings, Tono wasn't getting good movement and could have been had, but we didn't get it done."