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Another Series Win, But no Lead Extension

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Another Series Win, But no Lead Extension
SoftBank came into a 3-game series against the Rakuten Eagles with a 2.5 game lead over the Fighters. After all was said and done in the weekend, the Hawks ended up losing a game to the Fighters, who are living up to their name since losing first place to the Hawks.

SoftBank got some great pitching from an unlikely source in the first game of the series: the embattled "golden rookie" Shota Ohba. Since his complete-game, 16-strikeout gem against Lotte last year, Ohba has not been able to go beyond six innings, and has had trouble getting beyond the 5th inning. Going up against Masahiro Tanaka, who has had a monster year so far, many people were ready to give Rakuten the first-game win right off the bat.

Ohba surprised everybody by putting forth a quality start and dueling with Tanaka. Neither team was able to score in the first nine innings of the contest, and Tanaka was nothing short of brilliant yet again against SoftBank, but it was not without SoftBank having their chances against the former high school phenom.

The Hawks were able to scatter an astonishing 11 hits off Ma-kun, but he bore down and got out of many a jam. As the pitch count for Tanaka rose, his chances of going beyond 9 innings shrunk, giving SoftBank a chance to win in extra innings off the weak Rakuten bullpen.

On the home side, Ohba had his best start in over a year, throwing six-plus shutout innings and giving up only 2 hits, but also struggling with his control again, walking four batters to complement his 5 strikeouts. Nobody reached third base when Ohba was on the mound, and he looked the best he had since last year.

After 9 innings of scoreless ball, it was up to the bullpens, which SoftBank had delved into in the 7th with All-Stars Falkenborg and Settsu delivering two innings each of one-hit ball. Settsu walked and struck out two while giving up one hit, while Falkenborg was perfect over his two innings, striking out four, and striking out the side in order in the 9th.

The only run of the game came in the 11th. The fourteenth hit of the game proved to be the one that SoftBank had been looking for all game long against Marcus Gwynn. After cleaning up in the 10th for Arime, Gwynn began the 11th by getting a groundout to Kosaka, but then a costly error from him ended up being the game-winning run. as Katsuki Yamazaki reached.

Honda then singled off reliever Hasebe, and then after the second out was recorded, the Hawks welcomed back prodigal son Kazuo Fukumori by drawing a walk (Ortiz), and then Matsunaka sent everyone home happy with the sayonara hit that scored Yamazaki.

The next day was not as kind to the Hawks as they were stomped, 8-2. Fifteen hits were the order of the day for the Eagles, and they also pounded out three home runs off the bats of weak-hitting catcher Nakatani (2), Teppei (4), and Nori Nakamura (2).

Starting pitcher Yasushi Kamiuchi (L, 2-2), who was making his first start of the season in place of Sugiuchi, was clearly not used to being stretched out, as he had been used in the bullpen all season to this point. He only lasted 4 and 1/3 innings, giving up 3 runs on 6 hits, walking 2 and striking out three. Makoto Satoh didn't help matters as the veteran also gave up 3 runs in 1 and 2/3 innings. Mizuta had his share of problems too, as he gave up 2 runs in his only inning of work. Surprisingly enough, on a day that nobody could stop Rakuten's hitting, embattled lefty Koji Mise was the only Hawk pitcher to not give up a run, as he tossed 2 scoreless innings.

Satoshi Nagai was much better, as he gave the weak Rakuten bullpen a rest. He tossed 8 innings of 2-run ball, the only runs coming from a solo blast from Jose Ortiz (13) in the first, and an RBI single from Tamura. But that was all SoftBank would get on a day when the Hawk bats couldn't get out of neutral.

For the rubber game of the series, the Hawks bats finally started to get some offense going. Against the 2008 Sawamura winner Hisashi Iwakuma, who had just come off the DL with elbow soreness, SoftBank did not disappoint. They hit four home runs total, three in the fourth and one in the fifth, to stake themselves to a 7-0 lead by the end of the 5th inning and chasing Iwakuma, who dominated them last year.

Dennis Houlton pitched for the home nine and turned in yet another quality start. Over seven innings of shutout ball, Houlton struck out 6, gave up seven hits, and didn't walk anybody. Settsu pitched a scoreless 8th, and Mizuta took care of business in the 9th to preserve the shutout, but the real story was the Hawks offense making the most of their opportunities.

The fourth inning was the killer inning for the good guys. Matsunaka led off the inning by crushing his 13th of the season to right. After Kokubo singled, Tamura smashed an Iwakuma meatball to dead center for his 10th. 3-0 Hawks. After Iwakuma recorded two outs, Tanoue then crushed his 13th to left, allowing the Hawks to cover all fields in Souvenir City. Four runs, all by way of the home run, gave the Hawks a commanding 4-0 lead.

As if to make up for all their frustration against Iwakuma last year, the Hawks tacked on three more in the 5th. This time, it was Kokubo who did the honors, making Iwakuma pay for a walk to Ortiz and a single by Matsunaka. Kokubo's 8th, a three run blast, ended the scoring and also ended any thoughts the Eagles had about a comeback.

With a 1 and 1/2 game lead on Nippon Ham for first place in the Pacific League, the Hawks now face their pursuers, this time at Yahoo Dome. Shugo Fujii (4-3, 4.50) takes on Kenji Ohtonari (3-4, 5.34).

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Michael Westbay
(aka westbaystars)

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