Designated hitter Julio Zuleta drove in the winning run Saturday to lift the Pacific League champion Daiei Hawks to a dramatic 5-4 victory over the Central League champion Hanshin Tigers in Game 1 of the Japan Series.
With runners on first and second and two out in the bottom of the ninth, Zuleta connected off Hanshin reliever Yuya Ando for a walkoff single to left over the head of Hanshin centerfielder Norihiro Akahoshi.
After pinch runner Motoi Okoshi scored the winning run from second, Daiei players came charging off the bench to mob Zuleta.
"It was great to be able to come through in a situation like that," said Zuleta. "It was an unbelievable feeling but I have to give a lot of credit to my teammates because if they hadn't been on base I couldn't have driven them in."
Zuleta joined the Hawks in midseason after playing at Pawtucket in the Boston Red Sox organization.
Noriyoshi Omichi was expected to be the designated hitter in Saturday's opener but Zuleta impressed manager Sadaharu Oh in batting practice and was inserted into the starting lineup in place of Omichi. Daiei closer Takayuki Shinohara, who retired Tomoaki Kanemoto in the top of the ninth, picked up the win.
The showdown between two 20-game winners didn't live up to advance billing. Daiei starter Kazumi Saito, who went 20-3 in the regular season, came out with a 3-2 lead after giving up three runs on four hits over 6-2/3 innings.
"I was a bit nervous in the first inning," said Saito. "But I was able to settle down after the second inning. It was a tough outing and giving up six walks certainly didn't help matters."
Hanshin starter Kei Igawa, 20-5, lasted only five innings, giving up three runs on nine hits.
Shuji Yoshida came on in relief of Saito in the seventh and promptly gave up a two-out single to Shinjiro Hiyama that scored Atsushi Fujimoto from second as Hanshin tied the game 4-4.
Daiei took a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the sixth. Hiroshi Shibahara hit an infield single and stole second. Tadahito Iguchi singled to right off Hanshin reliever Jarrod Riggan to score Shibahara from second.
In the top of the sixth, Hanshin took advantage of some sloppy defense by the Hawks to tie the game 3-3.
Hiyama reached on an error by shortstop Yusuke Torigoe. Katsumi Hirosawa then struck out but Hiyama, running on the pitch, advanced to third when second baseman Iguchi allowed the ball to glance off his glove and into left field. Hanshin infielder George Arias then drove home the tying run with a single that bounced over the head of third baseman Munenori Kawasaki. Hanshin had taken a 2-1 lead in the top of the fourth when Akihiro Yano tripled to the gap in right-center scoring Arias and Atsushi Kataoka.
But the lead didn't last long.
Daiei catcher Kenji Jojima, who hit 34 homers in the regular season, led off the bottom of the fourth with a towering solo homer into the left field stands off Igawa. It was his first homer off a left-handed pitcher this season.
Igawa, who cruised trough the first three innings, came unglued in the bottom of the fourth after giving up the Jojima homer.
After Pedro Valdes singled up the middle, Igawa hit Julio Zuleta with a pitch before Akihito Muramatsu singled to load the bases. The Hawks reclaimed the lead when Torigoe hit a sacrifice fly to deep left.
Igawa retired the next two batters but the momentum had shifted to the Hawks.
Daiei got on the scoreboard in the bottom of the second. Valdes drew a walk, Zuleta singled and Akihito Muramatsu hit a single up the middle that scored Valdes.
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