Yu Darvish, a 20-year old righthander who is likely going to be the greatest Japanese-Iranian baseball player ever, tossed a complete game victory as the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters beat the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks 3-1 before a sold out crowd at the Sapporo Dome in Game 1 of the 2nd Leg of the Pacific League Playoff. (That's how it was referred to on the scoreboard.)
Darvish needed 138 pitches to complete an 11 strikeout performance that saw him give up seven hits, walk three, and hit two batters. The Hawks stranded 10 men and were retired in order only once. But Darvish didn't appear to be tiring, striking out Naoyuki Omura to end the game.
The Fighters can wrap up the Pacific League pennant with a win Thursday night at home. Kazumi Saito (18-5, 1.75 in the regular season) will pitch for SoftBank and Tomoya Yagi (12-8, 2.48) is scheduled to start for Nippon Ham. The Hawks need to win three games to win the pennant, but the Fighters need just two wins in the series because they were the regular season champs. Games 3 and 4 if necessary would be played Saturday and Sunday in Fukuoka at the Yahoo Dome.
Darvish got off to a very shaky start. Shortstop Munenori Kawasaki slapped the first pitch of the game down the left field line for a single. Omura followed with another single. After a sacrifice (there would be five of them in the game) moved the runners over, SoftBank left fielder Nobuhiko Matsunaka flied out to left and Kawasaki just beat a strong throw from Hichori Morimoto. After an intentional walk to Julio Zuleta, Darvish hit Yuichi Honda with a pitch to load the bases. Third baseman Jolbert Cabrera had a chance to add some more runs, but second baseman Kensuke Tanaka reached up to snare Cabrera's line drive before it could go in to right field.
The Fighters threatened in the first and second against SoftBank lefty Toshiya Sugiuchi, but could not score, leaving a runner in scoring position in each inning.
Darvish started to find his groove after the first and five of the next six outs by the Hawks were strikeouts.
Nippon Ham finally got something going in the third. Morimoto led off with a single to right and Tanaka sacrificed him over to second. First baseman Michihiro Ogasawara, whom the fans salute by waving blue inflatable dolphins, drew a walk. Designated hitter Fernando Seguignol managed to fight off a pitch and drop into left field to plate Morimoto with the tying run as the Sapporo Dome erupted in noise. Right fielder Atsunori Inaba popped out to short for the second out. Inaba went 0 for 4 on the night and stranded seven runners.
With two outs, crowd favorite Tsuyoshi Shinjo came up to bat. Shinjo's popularity has always been a case of style over substance and his numbers in both Japan and the US have always made me wonder what teams see in him. But playing in his final season and potentially one of his final games at the Sapporo Dome, numerous fans donned red t-shirts in honor of Shinjo, who wears red arm wrist bands on his forearms. And on this night, Shinjo delivered more than flash as he drove a single to right to score Ogasawara with the Fighters second run.
Starting in the fourth, the Hawks would manage to get at least one runner on (except in the seventh) against Darvish, but never could get him around and only once got a runner to third. That happened in the sixth, but Darvish struck out pinch hitter Mitsuru Honma to get out of the jam.
SoftBank interim manager Koji Moriwaki tried to piece together the final final six innings with a series of relievers, but he finally hit a bad pitch with his third one, rookie Akihiro Yanase, who pitched in just 13 1/3 innings in the top level of Japanese baseball this season. With one out in the eighth, Yanase walked back up third base Yuji Iiyama, who was batting just .141. Catcher Shinya Tsuruoka singled to right on a hit and run to send Iiyama to third. With shortstop Makoto Kaneko, Moriwaki opted to bring his infield in instead of playing for the double play and that move backfired when Kaneko dropped a ball right in the spot where Kawasaki would have been normally stationed. Iiyama scored a big insurance run to make it 3-1.
Darvish gave up a single in the ninth with one out and manager Trey Hillman came out to check on him, but opted to leave him. Darvish responded by getting Kawasaki to hit into a force play and then struck out Omura to end it. Needless to say, Darvish was chosen for the postgame "hero" interview. The crowd walked out into a cold and rainy Sapporo night in delirium and hopeful that tomorrow (Thursday) will be the day that the Fighters win their first Pacific League pennant since 1981. The Fighters lost to the Yomiuri Giants in six games that year in the Japan Series. Their only Japan Series win came in 1962 when the team was known as the Toei Flyers. They won that series in seven games, although one game was a tie.
The Hawks aren't dead though as they have their potential Sawamura Award (the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award) winner in Saito pitching. Saito is 63-16 in the last four seasons.
Other random thoughts about my trip to the Sapporo Dome:
The baseball team spells its name "Nippon-Ham Fighters" although the company is called "Nippon Ham." I wonder if the hyphen is to get people to stop calling the team the "Ham Fighters."
Fans entering the game were given a placard that was white on one side and red on the other and we had to hold up one side of it depending upon what someone told us. I just followed the majority.
A marketing campaign using the song "We Shall Overcome" to show how a team is going to become more competitive probably wouldn't fly in the U.S.
During my other trip to the Sapporo Dome there seemed to be beer and soda vendors all the time. Tonight, because of the big crowd, they were there only half the time. Someone needs to teach the Sapporo Dome people how to account for big crowds.
When you walk from the subway station in Sapporo to the Sapporo Dome, you walk right past a SoftBank store.