For the Yomiuri Giants, in the big moment, nobody comes up bigger than “Big Daddy.”
Alex Ramirez put the final nail in the coffin of the Hanshin Tigers’ reign atop the Central League, for the moment at least, with a towering home run to center to help the Yomiuri Giants take sole possession of the CL lead with a 3-1 win in front of 46,783 fans on Wednesday night at Tokyo Dome.
Lee Seung Yeop drove in a pair of runs in the third to give the Giants a two-run advantage before the Tigers cut the lead in half in the sixth. With things getting tense, Ramirez highlighted a 3-for-4 day with his 43rd homer of the season in the seventh.
“I came up with a chance to put us ahead and I was determined not to waste that opportunity.” Lee said. “This was a game we could not lose and we’ll take the next three games one at a time until we clinch the championship.”
The Tigers have been in first place for virtually the entire season, but the Kyojin, who trailed Hanshin by 13 games on July 8, have been on a roll over the course of the last three months.
“A few months ago we were 13 games behind,” said Ramirez, who added the game was the biggest of his entire playing career. “We kept our heads up and look where we are right now. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”
The Giants made their biggest gains against the Tigers themselves, going 12-4 against Hanshin since May 8. Yomiuri has won seven straight against the Tigers.
“We come ready to play,” Ramirez said. “We don’t come in thinking we’re playing the Hanshin Tigers. We think about winning against whoever we face. That’s the mentality we have. It really doesn’t matter who we face. The team’s momentum is good right now.”
Yomiuri’s magic number to clinch the CL pennant is two with three games remaining.
Giants starter Tetsuya Utsumi picked up the win despite faltering late in his 5 2/3-inning outing. Utsumi (12-8) allowed four hits and struck out four to win his third straight start, all against the Tigers.
Utsumi got off to a strong start but his control began to worsen as he lost sight of the strike zone in the fourth inning. Five of his six walks on the night came between the fourth and sixth innings.
Those walks led to a few dicey situations, the most harrowing of which came in the sixth.
Clinging to a 2-0 lead, Utsumi gave up a single to Takahiro Arai and walked Tomoaki Kanemoto to put runners on first and second with one out.
Right fielder Yoshiyuki Kamei saved a run with a nice catch on a hard-hit ball by Makoto Imaoka but the next batter, Takashi Toritani, drew a walk to load the bases.
Utsumi continued to struggle, and the mistakes caught up to him when he ended a nine-pitch at-bat against catcher Akihiro Yano by walking in a run.
Reliever Tetsuya Yamaguchi inherited the jam, and second baseman Ryota Wakiya handled pinch hitter Shinjiro Hiyama’s broken-bat grounder to end the inning and preserve the one-run advantage.
Yamaguchi (11-2) was superb in relief, tossing two scoreless innings. He also recorded his first hit as a professional with a two-out single in the seventh.
“For sure this was a game we had to win,” Yamaguchi said. “That’s how I was thinking when I came to the stadium today.”
Closer Marc Kroon retired the side in the ninth to become the first closer in franchise history to record 40 saves.
Hanshin starter Yuya Ando took the loss after allowing a pair of runs on seven hits with four strikeouts and two walks in four innings.
Ando (13-9) pitched himself into trouble in the third, giving up a one-out single to Wakiya, walking Michihiro Ogasawara and allowing Ramirez to reach on a single to load the bases.
Lee made him pay by sending his 1-1 shuuto deep to left-center for a two-run double.
The Tigers added a run on Yano’s bases-loaded walk in the sixth, but Ramirez ended the scoring with his seventh-inning homer.
“Today’s game was won by our four and five hitters,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said, “with Lee providing the two-run double and Rami hitting a big home run to give us insurance.”
Swallows 4, BayStars 1