Valentine's Marines on march toward berth in Japan Series

AP , FUKUOKA, JAPAN

Sat, Oct 15, 2005 - Page 20

Bobby Valentine has his Chiba Lotte Marines one win away from a trip to the Japan Series.

Matt Franco delivered the key hit Thursday and starter Naoyuki Shimizu went seven strong innings as the Marines defeated the Softbank Hawks 3-2 at Yahoo Dome to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the Pacific League's best-of-five second-stage playoffs.

Jolbert Cabrera gave the Hawks a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the fifth inning when he connected for a solo homer off a Shimizu breaking ball into the left-field stands.

But the lead didn't last long.

Franco connected off Softbank starter Kazumi Saito with a bases-loaded double to left in the sixth that scored a pair of runs and gave the Marines a 2-1 lead. Benny Agbayani, the hero of Wednesday's 4-2 win, made it 3-1 with a ground out that scored the runner from third.

Valentine, who is in the second year of a three-year contract as manager of the Marines, has made all the right moves in the first two games. The former New York Mets manager moved Franco up in the order for Thursday's game and the move paid off.

Softbank's Munenori Kawasaki pulled the Hawks to within one run on a leadoff solo homer in the bottom of the sixth but the Hawks couldn't close the gap and now have to win three games in a row to advance to the Japan Series, which starts on Oct. 22 against the Central League champion Hanshin Tigers.

Shimizu, who went 10-11 in the regular season, struck out six and gave up two runs on four hits for the win.

The Marines, who defeated the Seibu Lions 2-0 in the first stage playoffs, have now won four in a row and can book a spot in the championship with a win over Softbank on Saturday at Yahoo Dome.

Closer Masahide Kobayashi retired the side in the ninth for the save.

"My fastball was working tonight and I just tried to be as aggressive as possible," Shimizu said. "We knew if we won this game it would really put a lot of the pressure on them."

Saito, 16-1 in the regular season, took the loss after giving up three runs on five hits over six innings.

The Hawks, who finished the regular season 4-1/2 games ahead of the Marines in the standings and had a two-week layoff before Wednesday's game, and continued to look sluggish.

Nobuhiko Matsunaka, who had a Pacific League-leading 46 homers in the regular season, has yet to produce a hit in two games and hit a deep fly to center to end Thursday's game. Cleanup hitters Julio Zuleta and Tony Batista were also hitless in Game 2.

Lotte is making its first postseason appearance since 1974.