The Saitama Seibu Lions went 5-0 combined against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and Orix Buffaloes in the opening five-game home stand. They remain undefeated at 8-0 and have a 3+ game lead on the second place team, whether it's the Fighters or Marines. Here's how they got there:
The home opener against the Hawks had Nao Higashihama, their wins leader from 2017 up against Ken Togame. It was a slow start from the beginning, where Togame hit Kenta Imamiya to start the game. The Hawks manufactured a run from a sacrifice fly by Yuki Yanagita.
Things looked even more grim when Togame gave up a solo HR to Nobuhiro Matsuda, causing another "Atsuo" from the crowd. Higashihama was perfect through four innings, retiring all 12 battesr he faced.
Hotaka Yamakawa broke it up with the Lions first hit in the bottom of the 5th, where a triple was off Seiji Uebayashi's glove in right field. Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura had a timely hit with the infield playing in for the Lions first run.
After Togame picked up a hard earned shutdown inning, the third time through the order penalty struck hard on Higashihama in the 6th inning. Shogo Akiyama reached base on a single and was moved to second on a groundout by Sosuke Genda. Hideto Asamura tied the game with an RBI double. Yamakawa gave the Lions their first lead of the game with a two-run HR shortly after.
Kimiyasu Kudo left Higashihama out there to dry and the Lions made him pay for it as the inning continued. Shuta Tonosaki went yard for a two-run HR of his own.
Togame responded with a shutdown inning, where he struck out the side. Despite the early start, he finished with seven innings pitched, four hits, two walks and five strikeouts on the night in what proved to be a solid rebound outing.
Shogo Noda struggled out of the gate in the top of the 8th and forced Katsunori Hirai to clean up the mess with the bases loaded, stranding all the runners. The Lions added insurance in the bottom of the 8th when a wild pitch had pinch-runner Fumikazu Kimura score from second base.
Hayato Takago made his debut in a Lions uniform in the 9th, but struggled with location and gave up two runs. Tatsushi Masuda finished it off and recorded the final out for the Lions 4th straight win.
Lions 7, Hawks 4
-Hirai played all four games up to this point.
The second game of the short series had Rick van den Hurk up against Fabio Castillo, where the latter made his NPB debut. Scoring came early for the Lions when Tomoya Mori had a timely single in the bottom of the first inning. Mori later hit a solo HR in the 4th to make it 2-0.
Castillo flirted with perfection through 5.1 innings until Uebayashi hit an infield single in the 6th inning. He stranded the bases loaded after a 6-4-3 double play was successfully converted in a jam.
More hard contact was allowed by Castillo in the top of the 7th and Yuki Yanagita hit a sacrifice fly to cut the lead in half. Hatsuhiko Tsuji pulled the hook with two outs and Shogo Noda got pich hitter Tomoaki Egawa whiffing on a slider down low to limit the damage.
Shota Takekuma took the 8th and successfully picked off Kenta Imamiya. He gave up two singles, but Seiichi Uchikawa flew out to centerfield for no runs. Tatsushi Masuda had a clean 9th inning thanks to Yuji Kaneko runing down a ball and the Lions swept the short series, starting the season with a five game winning streak.
Lions 2, Hawks 1
-This winning streak matched the 5-game win streak from 2015 to start the year.
-To make room for Castillo, Nien Ting Wu was taken off the roster as a corresponding move.
-Tonosaki's four-game hit streak was snapped as he went 0-3.
-Mori secured a modasho with an infield single in the 6th inning.
The homestand continued against the Buffaloes with Yusei Kikuchi up against Yuki Nishi in a battle of Opening Day starters. After no score through three innings, Hideto Asamura hit a solo home run in the bottom of the 4th to open the scoring.
While Kikuchi didn't allow a hit after four innings, Orix responded immediately in the 5th after Chris Marrero created a chance with a double, putting two on and nobody out. Takahiro Okada grounded out and the Lions conceded the run to tie it up. However, Kikuchi worked out of the jam to keep the game tied.
A two-out rally came out of nowhere in the bottom of the 5th. Shogo Akiyama worked a single after a long at-bat. Sosuke Genda tripled as the ball slipped past Okada as Akiyama scored from first where the Lions retook the lead. Shuta Tonosaki made a miracle catch in the top of the 7th and saved a run, while he also contributed in the bottom of the inning with a leadoff triple. Ginjiro Sumitani plated Tonosaki shortly after to make it 3-1.
Kikuchi's night stayed strong, with 8 IP with six strikeouts, three walks and two hits allowed. Yamakawa erased any doubt with a two-run HR in the bottom of the 8th. Tatsushi Masuda closed it out and the Lions won their 6th straight.
Lions 5, Buffaloes 1
Game 2 against the Buffaloes had Daiki Tajima against Shinsaburo Tawata. The Lions scored early on a timely single from Yamakawa in the bottom of the first.
A crooked inning brewed in the bottom of the fourth, where Tonosaki dropped a timely bloop single into no man's land to double the lead at 2-0. Yuji Kaneko slapped a timely the other way for another RBI single, but Genda broke it open with a bases-clearing RBI triple to make it 6-0.
Tajima's day was done, but that's all the run support Tawata needed. Tawata floated with a no-hitter through 5.1 innings until Torai Fushimi broke it up as a pinch hitter. Our old friend Hiroyuki Nakajima broke the shutout with an RBI single in that same inning.
Otherwise, Tawata only gave up a solo HR to Chris Marrero in the top of the 7th. He finished the day with 7 IP, 5 H, 1 HBP, 4 K and 2 ER. Shogo Noda pitched a clean 8th while Neil Wagner took the 9th.
A short blooper made it all funny when Wagner was pitching, leading it off as an infield double. However, two groundouts equaled a run and there was no drama in the 9th, as the Lions won their 7th straight.
Lions 6, Buffaloes 3
-Masatoshi Okada came in as a 9th inning substitute for Mori. Masato Kumashiro made an appearance as a pinch runner after Ernesto Mejia walked in the 8th.
The final game of the series had Brian Wolfe facing Taisuke Yamaoka. Wolfe walked Yuma Mune on four pitches in the first, which led to a sacrifice bringing him to second. Masataka Yoshida opened the scoring with an RBI single for first blood. Orix added another run in the top of the 5th with a double steal, as Sumitani fell for the trap by throwing to second.
Yamaoka had a perfect game through four innings, but it was broken up by Yamakawa with a leadoff double in the 5th. After Tomoya Mori moved him to third on a single, Okawari-kun grounded into a double play to score Yamakawa and get the run back.
The Lions best chance came in the 6th inning, where there were two runners on with two outs. Yamaoka ended up getting Asamura to whiff on a full-count shuuto to end the threat.
Despite the stranding, Orix stranded a runner on third in the top of the 7th when Shota Takekuma relieved Hayato Takagi. The Lions responded with a six-run bottom of the 7th inning, where a bases loaded RBI single by Tonosaki to give them their first lead of the game at 3-2.
Sumitani attempted a sacrifice bunt and Kohei Suzuki threw the ball away to right field, scoring another run. Takumi Kuriyama hit a sacrifice fly and timely hits from Akiyama and Genda padded the lead to 7-2.
Noda walked the tight rope in the 8th with two base runners, but struck out the next two. Hirai struck out Marrero to end any threat and earn a shutdown inning. Neil Wagner struggled in the 9th, where he allowed two runners and recorded an out after a ball hit him in the leg. He left the game and Masuda allowed both inherited runners to score, but nothing more as the Lions won their 8th straight.
Lions 7, Buffaloes 4
-Fumikazu Kimura received his first at bat when he came in as a pinch runner, scoring from second on the error by Orix.
-With this win, it matched the longest win streak to start the year since 1991.
An absolutely perfect week in wins, but crazy enough, they can get even better. The rotation has done its job, going at least six innings and allowing only two runs or less, but the bullpen is still shaky in middle relief. Wagner failed in mop up duty and Noda has been scary.
Offensively, it's hard to find fault as someone has stepped it up each game. Castillo's debut is the most encouraging part, as he can ignore the past history against the Hawks and he got it done. The win streak likely ends in Sendai or Chiba this week ahead, but it's been a strong start for sure.
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