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Zuleta's walk-off hit helps Marines avoid meltdown

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Zuleta's walk-off hit helps Marines avoid meltdown

by Jim Allen (Jun 16, 2008)

With chances running out for his team, Julio Zuleta drove a pitch to the gap and plated the winning run in a game that turned from blowout to nail-biter on Sunday at Chiba Marine Stadium.

After blowing an early seven-run lead, the Marines scored in the ninth on a walk and Zuleta's two-strike, two-out, pinch-hit double to beat the Hanshin Tigers 10-9 and complete a sweep of their two- game series.

The loss spelled the first three-game losing streak of the season for the Central League leaders. The Tigers hadn't dropped two straight to the same team since being swept out of last season's playoffs.

"That's the easy way to win a game," Bobby Valentine, manager of the Pacific League's last-place Marines, shouted to his players as he left the field.

"It was a great game to win. Neither team gave up."

Although the Marines scored six runs in the first inning for the second straight day, they had to untie it in the ninth after the bullpen allowed six runs over the final three innings.

With Jose Ortiz on first with a two-out walk from Ryo Watanabe (3-1), Zuleta took two breaking balls from the right-hander.

"This is the kind of situation you want to be part of," Zuleta said. "I had to hit the ball hard, because a single wouldn't do it."

Zuleta then drove a low slider to the gap in right center.

"I knew he didn't want to throw me a fastball," Zuleta said. "When I saw the relay, I was wondering if he'd make it, but he did."

Zuleta raised his arms at second base in celebration as his teammates mobbed him after his first sayonara hit of the season.

It shouldn't have been this close, but the Tigers refused to go quietly even after Naoto Tsuru's brief pro debut left him with six earned runs and an infinite ERA. The 21-year-old right-hander faced six batters, allowing five hits and a walk.

The Marines opened with three straight singles. With no outs and runners on the corners, Kazuya Fukuura grounded one through the infield.

"It wasn't much of a hit," Fukuura said. "But it's a hit in the record book and it put our team on the board first, so I am happy to have it."

A walk loaded them for Tomoya Satozaki, and the Marines captain grounded one up the middle for a two-run single. With runners on the corners, left fielder Tomoaki Kanemoto just missed a diving attempt on a fly by Ortiz that was ruled a double. Tsuru left trailing by four, but Benny Agbayani greeted lefty Hirotaka Egusa with a perfectly placed single to right center that drove in two.

A day after the Marines became the first team this season to score at least three first-inning runs in back-to-back games, they became the first team to score six first-inning runs in back-to-back games. The Tigers entered the series having allowed 23 first-inning runs all season.

The Marines touched Egusa for a run in the second on Ortiz's line sacrifice fly, and the Tigers got to Marines starter Hiroyuki Kobayashi with three runs in the sixth as Hanshin's Nos. 3,4, and 5 hitters began to assert themselves. After a leadoff double, Takahiro Arai doubled, Kanemoto delivered a sacrifice fly and Shinjiro Hiyama hit an RBI double.

Lew Ford's RBI single closed the book on Kobayashi. Although Lotte got two runs back in the sixth, the Tigers ripped up the Marines' relievers, whose combined 4.28 ERA is the PL's worst.

Shingo Ono, making a cameo relief appearance, followed a scoreless seventh by allowing three runs on three hits in the eighth. Arai singled to open the inning, Kanemoto homered and Hiyama doubled.

Veteran lefty Koji Takagi got one out, but right-hander Yasutomo Kubo gave up Ikuro Katsuragi's two-run, pinch-hit homer. Kubo loaded the bases for Arai, but Brian Sikorski struck him out on three pitches.

Kanemoto doubled to open the ninth against Tadahiro Ogino, and Hiyama reached on an infield single. Another single and a sacrifice fly tied it, but Ogino (3-3) got out of the inning.

"Ogino gave up two runs, but he didn't give up that third to give them the lead," Valentine said. "That's something he can build on."

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