Katsuki Akagawa, Ryoji Aikawa and Ryosuke Morioka stood on the podium near home plate as the cheers of Tokyo Yakult supporters rang out through the night air at Jingu Stadium on Monday night.
The Swallows had just earned their biggest win in years — perhaps since the clinching fifth game of the 2001 Japan Series — and the aforementioned trio had played a large role in the evening’s 3-1 triumph over the hated Yomiuri Giants in the decisive third game of the Central League Climax Series first stage.
The three had taken wildly different paths to get to this point, but the laden promise of their unlikely convergence in Tokyo three seasons ago came into fruition just in time to point the Swallows to their first trip to the final stage of the Climax Series.
The loudest cheers of the night were for Akagawa, who was still a student at Miyazaki Shogyo High School three seasons ago. The Swallows selected him in the first round of the 2008 draft and he made his rookie debut in 2009.
Akagawa had made just 25 career appearances before being charged with starting the team’s most important game of the year. A game he likely wouldn’t even have played in had right-hander Yoshinori Sato been healthy.
“He pitched well under pressure,” Swallows manager Junji Ogawa said.
Akagawa responded to the challenge by snuffing out Yomiuri’s numerous rally attempts in 6 2/3 shutout innings on the mound.
“Honestly, I was a little nervous about him,” catcher Aikawa said. “He pitched wonderfully. I was happy with all of his pitches.”
Aikawa also joined the fold in 2008. The most decorated of the three, the veteran backstop had spent 10 seasons with the Yokohama BayStars before joining the Swallows as a free agent.
The 35-year-old’s bat has lost some of its pop over the years, and he entered Monday’s contest with just one home run in 463 at-bats, including the playoffs, this year.
Making it all the more poignant when he went deep to left in his first at-bat to give the Swallows a 1-0 lead against Giants starter Dicky Gonzalez, who, with the exception of slider that was slightly up to Aikawa, pitched just as well as Akagawa did.
“It was important for us to get the lead, so we would not have to play catch-up,” Aikawa said. “I’m glad it was my home run that put us ahead.”
While Akagawa and Aikawa took fairly straightforward paths to the Swallows, Morioka traveled down a winding road to get here.
He was a first-round pick of the Chunichi Dragons in 2002, but never made much of an impact in Nagoya. He played in 39 games from 2003-08 before being cut by the team. He joined the Swallows that offseason.
Fairly low on the depth chart, Morioka appeared in 52 games for the Swallows this season, hitting .256 with six RBIs in 97 at-bats. He likely would’ve still been an afterthought in the playoffs, if not for a rash of injuries that cost Yakult a couple of shortstops.
So with little other recourse, Morioka was inserted into the starting lineup for the first stage of the Climax Series. He delivered in a big way, hitting .444 and playing good defense during the three-game series. His seventh-inning RBI single in the clincher gave the Swallows a 2-0 lead, and some breathing room in what was then a tense affair.
“This is my ninth year as a pro, and now is the happiest moment in my baseball career,” he beamed during the hero interview.
Three seasons ago, the Swallows made the fairly quiet acquisitions of a highly touted high school pitcher, an aging catcher and a Dragons castoff.
On Monday night the triumvirate, grouped together again through a series of fortune and circumstance, stood up and finally made its voice heard.