With just over twenty games left in the regular season, it is time to focus in on the playoff races a little more. Basically, the Central League playoff picture is fairly clear (rankings aside). The Pacific League has four teams vying for the top three spots. As a result, we will focus less on the teams who will make an early exit: the Chunichi Dragons, Hiroshima Carp, Yokohama DeNA Baystars, Saitama Seibu Lions and Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. How are the rest of the teams doing? Glad you asked! Here are quick summaries of some of the noteworthy games from the past week.
Monday: The Chiba Lotte Marines, who have kept hold of first place for much of September, squeezed past the Fighters, 1-0. Ayumu Ishikawa teamed up with three relievers to five-hit the Fighters, and they pieced together their run in the sixth on a double, bunt, and Kyota Fujiwara sacrifice fly. Unfortunately for the Marines, they also received some bad news: top slugger Leonys Martin fractured a bone on the 19th when he fouled a ball off his right leg and will miss the remainder of the season.
Tuesday: The Yomiuri Giants continue to struggle and will need to play their best baseball of the year if they hope to three-peat as CL champs. Hiroki Tokoda of the Carp threw a complete-game shutout, blanking the two-time champs 2-0. He threw 125 pitches and struck out nine. But this would not be the last time the Giants got shut out by a lefty this week: Haruto Takahashi did the same on Saturday, striking out 13 Giants in a 3-0 win.
Wednesday: The surprising Yakult Swallows used a string of singles in the top of the ninth to push past the Baystars by a 2-1 score, and took over first place in the Central in the process. Their pitching, which has been a disaster in years past, has been outstanding in the second half so far. In fact, they shut out the Dragons the entire weekend on top of the fine performance by Yasuhiro Ogawa (7 IP 1 R) on this night.
Thursday: The Lions put a damper on the Rakuten Eagles’ hopes of gaining ground in the PL standings, as they walked this one off, 4-3. Kaima Taira continued his historically strong season with another shutout inning in the ninth, and seldom-used Sena Tsuge hit a bases-loaded single through the left side of the infield for the win. The Eagles are currently in third, but the SoftBank Hawks are breathing down their necks, just 1.5 games back.
Friday: The Tigers spent their weekend in Tokyo facing their rivals, the Giants, and it looked quite grim early on. Despite an early three-run lead, starter Yuki Nishi imploded in the bottom of the third inning, serving up home runs to two batters and surrendering the lead. That lead got extended the very next inning… but the rest of the weekend was all Hanshin. They scored late to tie this one (holding on thanks to two outstanding defensive plays by rookie shortstop Takumu Nakano), then won out the remainder of the weekend.
Saturday: Orix Buffaloes’ ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto has been downright dominant this season. How dominant, you ask? His 1.50 ERA is the best of the past decade among starting pitchers. The only other pitchers in the past 50 years to stifle other teams’ offenses are guys named Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish. On this day, Yamamoto threw eight innings of two-run ball and picked up his 12th straight decision as the Buffaloes beat the Eagles, 3-2. If Yamamoto does not win the Sawamura Award this year, something is wrong with the committee.
Sunday: As alluded to earlier, the Swallows did not allow the Dragons a single run over the weekend. Sure, they got one-hit on Saturday and that game ended in a tie, but they more than made up for it on this night, slaughtering the Dragons 16-0. Much of the damage was done by two of the hottest hitters in the game right now, Tetsuto Yamada (2 home runs, 7 RBI) and Munetaka Murakami (league-best 38th home run and the youngest hitter to record 100 RBIs in a season). They hold a zero-game advantage over the Tigers but thanks to a lot of ties, hold a win-percentage lead.
Good week: Swallows (5-0-2), Hawks (5-1), Tigers (3-1-2), Carp (4-2-1)
Bad week: Baystars (1-6), Dragons (1-4-2), Fighters (2-4)