The youngest player on the team had the ball in his hands for the most important game of the year for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.
But if the enormity of the situation ever affected Katsuki Akagawa, he never let it show.
Pitching in just his 26th professional game, Akagawa threw 6⅔ innings of shutout ball, and the Swallows provided just enough offense in a 3-1 win over the Yomiuri Giants in Game 3 of the Central League Climax Series first stage on Monday night at Jingu Stadium. The win gives the Swallows a 2-1 victory in the series.
“I was nervous at first but was able to settle in as the game went along,” Akagawa said. “I talked to (Shohei) Tateyama-san before the game, and he told me to relax and do my usual pitching. So that’s what I tried to do.”
Swallows catcher Ryoji Aikawa gave his pitcher an early lead with a solo homer against starter Dicky Gonzalez in the third inning, and the Swallows added insurance runs in the seventh and eighth.
Yakult advances to face the CL champion Chunichi Dragons in the final stage of the climax series, starting Nov. 2 at Nagoya Dome. Chunichi begins that six-game series with an automatic one-game advantage, with the first team to four wins earning a spot in the Japan Series.
The Swallows were 10-11-3 against the Dragons this season, including an 2-1-9 record at Nagoya Dome. Yakult was 0-5 in the Dragons’ home park in October.
“We’re going to Nagoya full of confidence and feeling great after this victory here tonight,” shortstop Ryosuke Morioka said. “We will definitely win in Nagoya and bring the Japan Series to Jingu Stadium.”
They have a chance to do that, thanks in part to a 21-year-old left-hander making his 24th appearance of the year.
“I went out there determined to win this game for us,” Akagawa said. “It was a must-win game, and I pitched my heart out.”
With Aikawa — himself a 17-year veteran — calling the shots, Akagawa walked a tight rope at times in order to keep the Giants at bay.
He pitched with runners in scoring position for much of his outing, twice with one or no outs, and wriggled free each time.
“I just took it one batter at a time and tried not to worry about the base runners but concentrate on getting the hitter out,” Akagawa said.
Swallows reliever Takehiko Oshimoto took over with two outs in the seventh and Game 1 winner Kyohei Muranaka worked the final two frames.
The loss gives the Giants an entire offseason to rue their missed opportunities.
Yomiuri went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position, managing only a single by Gonzalez.
Hayato Sakamoto, a .361 hitter with runners in scoring position during the regular season, was 0-for-3 with a runner on either second or third.
With the exception of a mistake slider to Aikawa in the third, Gonzalez gave the Giants all they could ask for on the mound.
“He just found the pitch,” Gonzalez said of Aikawa’s homer. “He didn’t make a good swing like he was looking for that pitch. A lucky home run, I can say. But that counts, that counts and they win. I have respect for him.”
Gonzalez went 6⅔ innings, allowing two runs — one earned — on four hits and striking out two. He was charged with the loss.
“That’s just baseball,” Gonzalez said. “Somebody had to lose. You have to respect those guys. They were in first place for a long time, and I think they’re playing good baseball right now.”
Gonzalez retired 11 consecutive batters after giving up Aikawa’s homer in the third.
He recorded an out to begin the seventh, then gave up a infield single to Miyamoto. The Giants attempted to turn a Wladimir Balentien grounder into a double play, but a errant throw to first by second baseman Takayuki Terauchi allowed the Yakult slugger to reach second.
Giants manager Tatsunori Hara then summoned Tetsuya Yamaguchi from the bullpen as his Swallows counterpart, Junji Ogawa, sent Tsuyoshi Ueda on to run
Morioka then hit a single into left and Ueda beat a good throw to the play by Ramirez to score from second. Yakult added another run in the eighth on a single by Kazuki Fukuchi.
Yomiuri slugger Michihiro Ogasawara ended the scoring with a solo homer in the ninth.