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Fighters Take Two of Three From Reeling Hawks

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Fighters Take Two of Three From Reeling Hawks
Ehh, I knew I'd hate myself for picking SoftBank to go to the Japan Series. Even though there are 54 games left in the season for the Hawks, they need to put a run together to bring their confidence back. A hard-fought win gave way to another disappointing loss, especially since the last game of the series came with Sugiuchi on the mound. SoftBank needs to get their act together and fast, making the team's next series against Lotte all the more important.

SoftBank started the first half of the weekend with a well-fought win. DJ Houlton was called on to be the stopper against Shugo Fujii. Both men pitched very well in their outings, as Fujii pitched 6 shutout innings and Houlton only gave up one run in his usual bend-but-don't-break style of pitching.

Terrmel Sledge, mired in a season-long slump, cracked a home run to left to begin the second inning against Houlton, but that was all that Nippon Ham would not only get off the Hawks' starter, but also for the entire game. For the rest of the game, the Fighters would get their hits, but they did not capitalize. Houlton's line was unspectacular, but he did notch the quality start with seven innings pitched, giving up only the one run on seven hits, walking 2 and striking out 3.

Fujii was just as good as Houlton, matching him pitch for pitch. SoftBank was able to mount more threats than the Fighters could, but the story remained the same: SoftBank couldn't convert. Their best chance was the first inning, when the Hawks had 2 on and 2 out, but Tanoue flew to right to end the inning. Fujii left the game after 6 innings of 3-hit ball, walking 2 and striking out 6.

The bullpens were tested on both sides, with Nippon Ham sending 3 men to the mound after Fujii and SoftBank sending two. Kikuchi worked the 7th, and gave up a hit, but struck out two in his inning of work. The 8th inning was the telling inning for the entire game.

Tamura came in to pinch-hit for Satoru Morimoto, but grounded out harmlessly to relief pitcher Yoshinori Tateyama. Honda then came up and doubled to left, giving the Hawks a chance. After Kawasaki fouled out to shortstop, things were looking bleak. But then up came Nobuhiko Matsunaka, who had 7 of his 17 home runs so far this season against the Fighters. With one swing of the bat, he not only hit his 8th dinger of the season against the Fighters and 18th of the season, but it also vaulted SoftBank into the lead, 2-1.

Thanks to the efforts of Brian Falkenborg and Takahiro Mahara, that was how it would end. Houlton took the win (8-4), Tateyama took the loss (2-4), and Mahara notched his 21st save of the season.

With SoftBank back to its 3-game deficit with which it started the series, they now had a chance to close the gap again by a game. It looked like the Hawks had a good chance to do it as ace Toshiya Sugiuchi was on the mound. However, Sugiuchi ran into difficulties and recorded his second straight start of giving up 5 or more earned runs after not doing so in any of his previous starts this season.

On the other side was junkballing lefty Masaru Takeda, and he made life as miserable as possible for the Hawks, as he usually does. He improved to 7-3 in his career against SoftBank and also possesses a 2.02 ERA against the Hawks lifetime.

The junk was on full display for Takeda in the final game of this 3-game set, as he frustrated the Hawks again over 6-plus innings, giving up 5 hits, and striking out 5 while giving up one earned run that came from Hiroki Kokubo (10) in the 7th.

Sugiuchi was on cruise control through the first three innings, retiring 10 of the first 11 batters he faced, surrendering only a walk to Hichori Morimoto. Inaba got the first Fighters hit of the game, a single up the middle to center field. Sugiuchi recorded the second out, but then the troubles began for him. Sledge and Koyano rapped out back-to-back doubles to put Nippon Ham ahead 2-0 in the 4th.

Sugiuchi was able to work around a Kaneko double in the 5th, but he ran into more trouble in the 6th. Again with two outs the Fighters hung tough and were able to get something going. Fire-starter Inaba led off with another single, and after Sugiuchi got the next two outs, Koyano singled and then Giants import Nioka then put the nail in the coffin as he blasted a 3-run home run (3) to left and chasing Sugiuchi (9-3) from the game.

Mizuta and Ohba were called on from the bullpen, and neither were immune to the sudden rain of home runs. Mizuta was victimized by Kensuke Tanaka (2) in the 8th, and pinch-hitter Itoi (10) got to Ohba in the 9th to set the final score at 7-1.

With SoftBank back four games of Nippon Ham and 4.5 ahead of Seibu for the last playoff spot in the PL, the Hawks now have increased importance on the upcoming home series against Lotte. SoftBank sends lefty Kenji Ohtonari (4-6, 5.40) to the mound against big righty Hiroyuki Kobayashi (2-8, 4.18).

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Michael Westbay
(aka westbaystars)

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