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John E. Gibson

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Lions cap incredible comeback with final win

by John E. Gibson (Oct 20, 2011)

Everything seemed to fall into place for Saitama Seibu to enjoy a final-game Lions' share of the spotlight.

The Chunichi Dragons finally clinched the Central League title and grabbed the headlines, but the Lions were on the smile-flashing end of a drama-filled night of Pacific League action.

The Lions got the breaks they needed down the stretch, including a 4-3 victory over the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters on Tuesday night, to grab third place by the slimmest of margins and capture the final Climax Series playoff spot.

The Fighters played a small role in Seibu's last dash, deciding to rest ace Yu Darvish in the finale after dropping eight of 12 to the Lions since the All-Star break. But the pieces started to fall into place when the Buffaloes, who had a red-hot September, faltered in October with a 3-9-1 record.

"Actually, it's been crazy," said Jose Fernandez, who bashed his 17th longball, a monster shot to left with a man aboard in the third inning to provide the winning margin in the clincher. "They helped us a lot. They lost a lot of games they shouldn't have lost.

"And we won--we got hot at the end. I'm happy because this is too good of a team, and it would be a shame if we didn't make the playoffs."

The stage for last-day drama was set as the Lions' most reliable starter this season, 39-year-old Fumiya Nishiguchi, was on the hill in Game 144 at Seibu Dome.

Nishiguchi (11-7) came up with arguably his best game of the year, fanning 11 and surrendering five hits and a walk over eight innings and 140 pitches.

The Lions, who fell five games back of the Buffaloes after a loss at home on Oct. 5, weren't particularly great, going just 7-5-2 this month. But they had to focus and win the finale, doing so against the second-place Fighters, whom they'll meet in the first stage of the Climax Series playoffs starting Oct. 29 at Sapporo Dome.

They did it by also climbing on the back of PL MVP candidate Takeya Nakamura, who blasted his Japan-best 48th homer for win No. 68. Orix had 69 wins, but its .5036 winning percentage was one-thousandth of a point behind Seibu's.

The Lions spent most of the season looking up at most of the PL teams, and tumbled as many as 15 games under the break-even mark. But they clawed their way out of that crater--the first time in club history they've gotten back to .500 from a hole that deep--and reached the postseason.

"We went through some tough times this season and really couldn't seem to put things together," skipper Hisanobu Watanabe said. "In April and May, we were in last place and it was a really hard time. But the team showed it wasn't going to give up, and although we were as many as 15 games under .500, in September we rallied back and now we're in the Climax Series."

The Buffaloes had the advantage in winning percentage points, but had to lose their last game for Seibu to have a chance. Sure, Orix was at home with ace Chihiro Kaneko on the mound, but it was facing the league-winning Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and D.J. Houlton, who was shooting for his Japan-best-tying 19th victory.

It wasn't much of a contest. The Buffaloes fell meekly, 4-1 as Houlton (19-6) handcuffed them. The righty yielded just three hits with a walk and a hit batter over seven one-run innings.

"I guess we won the games we were supposed to win and they didn't," Fernandez said. "That's the way this game goes. We have a good team and I knew if they gave us a break we were going to make the best of it. Hopefully we can carry on."

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Dragons finish off 1st repeat

The Chunichi Dragons didn't come away with a victory, but they walked off with the Central League title Tuesday night at Yokohama Stadium.

Tony Blanco's sixth-inning three-run homer got the Dragons even, and six scoreless innings from the bullpen helped the Dragons lock down their ninth CL championship with a 10-inning 3-3 tie with the Yokohama BayStars.

Super set-up man Takuya Asao, who extended his single-season club record for appearances, went 2-1/3 innings--his longest outing of the season--to close it out about 50 minutes after the Tokyo Yakult Swallows beat the Hanshin Tigers 4-0 to force Chunichi to win or tie to clinch the title.

Outgoing eighth-year skipper Hiromitsu Ochiai got the traditional victory toss as the Dragons won back-to-back titles for the first time in their 75-year history.

Ochiai, who has four league titles and one third-place finish since taking over in 2004, was told last month he wouldn't be offered a contract for next season.

The Dragons, who had dropped to fifth place in August and were as many as 10 games behind the Swallows at one point, have gone 40-22-8 since the All-Star break to bounce back and win the pennant.


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