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How Sweep it is! Hawks Take First Place

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How Sweep it is! Hawks Take First Place
As short as a 2-game series can be, the Hawks needed to at least get a split of the series this weekend against the Fighters. The best-case scenario would be if the Hawks took both games, and they managed to do just that this weekend.

Toshiya Sugiuchi started the first game of the series against former Rookie of the Year, Tomoya Yagi. The SoftBank ace was looking to get the first half of the series off to a good start, and boy did he ever. Sugiuchi pitched a complete game, and his offense picked him up by pounding out seven runs, all of which came via the big fly.

Yagi's first big mistake came in the 4th inning with Nobuhiko Matsunaka up. After hitting Jose Ortiz to start the inning, the lefty made a mistake he would not soon forget. Matsunaka hit one of his patented dead pull home runs into the right-field seats for a go-ahead home run, putting SoftBank on top, 2-1.

Sugiuchi ran into trouble himself in the bottom of the 4th. After giving up a run the previous inning, Nippon Ham scratched across two more thanks to some two-out lightning from the bottom of the order. Eiichi Koyano and Yoshio Itoi both singled to set up Hawks-killer Makoto Kaneko, who has been hitting much better than last season. He delivered a 2-run double that scored both runners to vault Nippon Ham back into the lead, 3-2.

Sugiuchi would settle down and that would be the last time the Fighters even had anybody beyond first base. From then on, Mr. May retired 10 in a row at one point, and he also struck out the side in the 8th. Sugiuchi's (9-1) final line was 9 innings, giving up 3 runs (2 earned) on 7 hits, walking one batter and striking out 9.

Yagi was less successful, to say the least. While his pitching was substantially better than the last two seasons, he made another fatal mistake in the 7th, with SoftBank still trailing 3-2. After a Kokubo single, Yagi ran into the white-hot Hitoshi Tamura, who cranked his 8th homer of the season into dead center field. All of a sudden, the Hawks re-took the lead, pulling ahead 4-3. The home run was Tamura's 4th in the last 5 games, and 4th in the last week.

The final line for Tomoya Yagi (6-1) was 6 and 1/3 innings, giving up 4 runs on 7 hits, walking 1 and striking out 6 Hawks. He would take the loss, his first of the season. After the Tamura home run, Yagi would get one more out before handing it over to Yoshinori Tateyama.

Tateyama would work 1 and 2/3 innings of perfect ball before handing it over to Satoshi Ejiri. With the game still in reach, it was up to Ejiri to keep it that way. SoftBank would have none of it. The longtime Nippon Ham reliever dug his own grave by walking two men, then burying himself and the Fighters by giving up a 2-out home run to another Hawk who has been going on a power trip, Hidenori Tanoue. Tanoue plated three runs by sending another souvenir into the right field seats to put the game away, 7-3.

The next day was a battle of the gaijin as Brian Sweeney took on DJ Houlton. This game was more tightly contested, as both Sweeney and Houlton matched each other pitch for pitch.

Well, almost. Sweeney (2-5) turned in his longest outing of the season, going 7 innings and hurling 124 pitches, but he gave up 3 runs on 7 hits, walking one and striking out two. Normally that is good enough to win, but Houlton (6-3) turned in another great start, as he put up 7 brilliant innings of his own, giving up only 2 runs (1 earned) on 6 hits, walking one and striking out 7 in 109 pitches.

The difference between Houlton and Sweeney was that Houlton gave up consecutive hits only once, and only gave up two extra-base hits, both to Itoi.

Sweeney had one bad inning: the 3rd inning. It also proved to be the only inning that SoftBank would score in for the entire day. New leadoff man Nobuhiro Matsuda doubled to start the 3rd, Ortiz singled after Kawasaki fouled out, and then Matsunaka crushed a Sweeney pitch down the line in right to put SoftBank up 3-0 at the time, and also notch his 12th home run of the season.

Nippon Ham answered back, cutting into SoftBank's advantage. Kaneko singled to start the inning, then stole second base to put himself into scoring position. Itoi doubled in Kaneko to trim the Hawks' lead to 3-1. Houlton was holding Nippon Ham to about one hit an inning before the Hawks sometimes-shaky defense pulled the Fighters to within 1 in the 6th inning.

Veteran first baseman Kokubo muffed a ground ball from Itoi, getting him on. Itoi then stole second, then was advanced to third by 2006 Japan Series MVP Atsunori Inaba, who had a quiet series. Shinji Takahashi then scored Itoi, even though he grounded into a 4-6-3 double play.

That ended the scoring for the day, but SoftBank threatened in the 8th off Hayashi before the previous day's goat Ejiri slammed the door. Hayashi managed to get the first two outs before Kokubo and Tamura singled, and Hayashi exacerbated matters by walking Hasegawa to load the bases. Ejiri came in and got Tanoue to ground out to end the threat.

SoftBank got some great relief work of his own from Brian Falkenborg, who worked a perfect 8th, and Takahiro Mahara, who closed out the game by notching his 14th save, and striking out 2 of the 3 batters he faced.

The two wins put SoftBank into first place for the first time in more than a season, with the Hawks leading the Fighters by half a game in the Pacific League. After a day off tomorrow, the Hawks take on the Buffaloes in Osaka for a 3-game series.

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Michael Westbay
(aka westbaystars)

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