All the Tokyo Yakult Swallows had to do was beat the Hanshin Tigers to wrap up a spot in the Central League Climax Series.
It didn’t turn out to be quite that easy, but it’s hard to argue with the results.
Starter Masanori Ishikawa got a lot of help from his teammates as he pitched Yakult into the playoffs with 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball as the Swallows clinched third place in the Central League with a 3-1 victory over the Hanshin Tigers on Friday at Jingu Stadium.
“Yesterday we threw (Shohei) Tateyama, and he was unbelievable,” outfielder Aaron Guiel said. “For Ishikawa to come out today and be able to do that was something special.
“For those guys to be able to step their game up and do that when the game’s so important is crucial for our team.”
Ishikawa took the bite out of the Tigers’ lineup, challenging them with fastballs and relying on his defense. He gave a wry smile after Takahiro Arai nearly took him deep for what would have been a game-tying homer in the sixth, but was in control for most of the night.
“His fastball was working very well and he was able to use it a lot tonight,” Swallows catcher Ryohei Kawamoto said of Ishikawa. “He also was able to use his cutter well.”
The Yakult starter, who was buoyed by Norichika Aoki’s first-inning RBI single, struck out two and walked two in an 106-pitch outing. Kawamoto aided the cause with an RBI single in the sixth and Shinya Miyamoto drove in an insurance run in the seventh.
The win means the Swallows will travel to Nagoya to face the Chunichi Dragons in the first stage of the Climax Series on Oct. 17. The teams will get a chance to feel each other out on Saturday when the Dragons play their season finale at Jingu.
“They are a strong team with very good batters,” Kawamoto said. “I think they are tough.”
To set up that matchup, the Swallows had to survive a whirlwind seventh inning.
Down 2-0, Hanshin got the inning started with a leadoff single by Kodai Sakurai. Keizuke Kano followed with a liner that ricocheted off shortstop Yuji Onizaki, an error that allowed the runner to advance to third.
The Tigers wasted little time driving in the run, Mitsunobu Takahashi doing the honors with a single up the middle, to make the score 2-1.
Hanshin tried to advance the tying run to third with a bunt, but Kawamoto alertly scooped up the ball and threw out the lead runner. Yakult recorded the second out on a flyout by Kentaro Sekimoto.
The next batter, Takashi Toritani, recorded an infield single to load the bases for Tomoaki Kanemoto. But Hanshin’s best player couldn’t take advantage, flying out on a first-pitch fastball.
“That was a very tense inning,” Kawamoto said. “I was just trying to keep myself prepared for anything. But I wasn’t nervous at all.”
The Swallows finally clinched the playoff berth after losing their grip on third place after a long losing streak last month. Now, they have a chance to enter the playoffs on a positive note as opposed to backing in.
“It changes everything,” Guiel said. “We finished it out on a good note. The team was going on a bit of a slide, but were were able to rebound.”