The 2022 NPB regular season was good to the last drop. We mean it. Listen to how 3rd place was decided in the Central League, how the pennant was won in the Pacific, and how a certain young man remained conspicuously absent from our updates in recent weeks, but etched his name in the books in his final at-bat of the year.
The Tokyo Yakult Swallows had the CL locked up a couple of weeks ago already, and the Yokohama DeNA Baystars had assured themselves of second place some time back as well. But there was a three-horse race for third place between the Hiroshima Carp, Hanshin Tigers, and Yomiuri Giants. The former two teams had three games left and found themselves a half-game behind the latter, who had just two games remaining. None of these were head-to-head matchups and it was entirely plausible that they would find themselves knotted together after Game 143. Also of note, because these were all make-up games and the schedule was pieced together somewhat oddly, they only played at the same time on Sunday. Anyhow… the Tigers won Tuesday and Wednesday against the Swallows, putting themselves outright in third. The Carp lost on Thursday and Friday against those same Swallows, eliminating themselves from the race. On Saturday, the Giants got blanked by the Baystars, 1-0, which knocked them out as well, since the tiebreaker would have gone to the Tigers by virtue of a 14-10-1 head-to-head record against the Giants. So although Game 143 on Sunday did not matter, it is fair to say this playoff race came down to the wire.
And so, the Tigers will roll into Yokohama this coming weekend to play a best-of-three against the Baystars. The winner of that short series will immediately find itself a game down in the best-of-seven series to be played at Meiji Jingu Stadium against the Swallows starting next week Wednesday.
If you think the CL finish was wild, you haven’t heard anything yet. The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks had won five of six games, reducing their magic number to 1 with two games to play. Meanwhile, second-place Orix Buffaloes had just one game in which to keep their pennant hopes alive. The Hawks in fact needed just a tie or better in one of their final two games. Guess what: they lost in extra innings against the third-place Saitama Seibu Lions on Saturday (Hotaka Yamakawa’s 41st home run was the dagger) after tying the game in the ninth… and then despite leading the Chiba Lotte Marines on Sunday, they served up a big home run to Koki Yamaguchi in the sixth and dropped their final game. Just minutes before the final out of their game, the Buffaloes had put the finishing touches on their come-from-behind 5-2 victory over the Rakuten Eagles, thereby tying themselves atop the standings. They win the pennant by virtue of winning the season series against the Hawks. It is the first time that two teams ended the year at the top with identical records (in this case, 76-65-2). This kind of avenges the 2014 season, in which the Hawks’ 78-60-6 (.565) eclipsed the Buffaloes’ 80-62-2 (.563) record. Ties matter – sometimes they work in your favor, other times they do not!
Therefore, the Pacific League playoffs see the Lions heading to Fukuoka for a best-of-three against the Hawks, and the winner of that series will face an 0-1 deficit in Osaka against the Orix Buffaloes in the Final Stage of the Climax Series.
Anyone out there remember Munetaka Murakami of the Swallows and the incredible season he was having through 130 games? He kind of hit a brick wall and was stuck on 55 home runs (good for a four-way tie with Sadaharu Oh, Tuffy Rhodes, and Alex Cabrera)… until tonight. In his fourth and final at-bat of the final game of the year, he hit a no-doubter into the right-field stands for his 56th long ball of the year. He ends the year just four behind the single-season record holder, former teammate Wladimir Balentien, who hit 60 in 2013. By the way, Murakami also became the youngest player ever to win the Triple Crown, at age 22 years, 8 months. He ended the regular season with a .318 average, 56 home runs, and 134 RBIs. What a year.
You can figure out the top of the standings in each league based on the playoff pictures (see above) but here are the bottom three in order from best to worst:
Central: Yomiuri Giants, Hiroshima Carp, Chunichi Dragons
Pacific: Rakuten Eagles, Chiba Lotte Marines, Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters