The Swallows fans packed into the stands at Jingu Stadium had already been cheering about as loud as they had all season for the past four hours
But when Yuhei Takai hit a ball that squirted past the first-base bag and into right field, they found the strength to kick it up another notch.
Takai hit a sayonara single in the 11th and the Tokyo Yakult Swallows captured the Central League pennant with a 2-1 victory over the Hanshin Tigers on Friday night in front of an enthusiastic crowd of 33,986 at Jingu Stadium.
“This is a great atmosphere,” Swallows manager Mitsuru Manaka said. “This was an amazing game.”
The Swallows tossed their first-year manager into the air seven times as part of the traditional doage celebration after the victory.
“We’ve played some tough games, so I kind of felt the strength drain out of my body,” Manaka said.
Yakult is the CL champion for the seventh time in franchise history and for the first time since 2001.
The Birds are the fifth NPB team to win a pennant after finishing in last place the season prior. Yakult joins the Taiyo Whales in 1960, the Hiroshima Carp in 1975, the Yomiuri Giants in 1976, and the 2001 Kintetsu Buffaloes, the team the Swallows beat in the Japan Series the last time Yakult captured the league title, in that regard.
In addition to capturing the pennant, the Swallows earned the right to host the entirety of the CL Climax Series final stage at Jingu Stadium. Yakult will begin that six-game series with a 1-0 lead.
“We still have the Climax Series and Japan Series to play and will play every game just like we have all year,” Manaka said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to share more joy with all of you (the fans).”
It was a long journey for the Swallows, who survived injuries and a Central League race that was tight until the end.
“It felt fast until September,” Manaka said of the pennant race. “It felt longer afterward, because we’ve been playing games we couldn’t afford to lose.”
The Swallows struck first on a single by Kazuhiro Hatakeyama in the opening frame to take a 1-0 lead. The Tigers answered in the top of the eighth, tying the score on an RBI single by Kentaro Sekimoto.
Neither team was able to score in the ninth, and the Tigers dodged a major bullet in the 10th, as the Swallows got the potential winning run to third, to keep the game tied.
Unlike the Swallows, the Tigers’ spot in the postseason isn’t yet secure, and manager Yutaka Wada likely had that in mind when he turned to one of his starting pitchers, Atsushi Nomi, in the 10th.
Nomi was still on the mound in the 11th, when Shingo Kawabata began the inning with a single that was just out of the reach of shortstop Takashi Toritani. The next batter, Tetsuto Yamada, struck out, but Kawabata was able to steal second, and kept on going to third thanks to a throwing error by catcher Kazunari Tsuruoka.
The Tigers issued a free pass to Hatakeyama, bringing Hiroyasu Tanaka to the plate, but the pinch hitter flew out to right. That brought Takai up, and he delivered to send the Swallows players rushing out onto the field while the home fans erupted with euphoria in the stands.
“I stepped up to the plate trying to end it there, but without trying to do too much,” Takai said.
Yasuhiro “Ryan” Ogawa got the start for the Swallows and threw six innings of shutout ball, but didn’t factor into the decision. Orlando Roman threw two scoreless innings to earn the win in relief.
“It was a rare experience, and I felt like this is really baseball,” Ogawa said. “It really is difficult to win a championship.
The Swallows could’ve clinched the title on Tuesday, but lost to the Hiroshima Carp. Their second chance was washed out by rain on Thursday. On Friday, they finally got the job done.
“I realized how hard it was to win one game,” Hatakeyama said as he reflected on the past year. “Having been able to still win it, I feel we’ve really grown and have become a really good team.”
Kamei sparks Giants
Yokohama — Yoshiyuki Kamei’s two-run infield single put the second-place Yomiuri Giants in the lead for good, and the visitors earned a 4-1 must-win victory over the Yokohama BayStars on Friday night in the Central League.
Carp 2, Dragons 1
At Hiroshima’s Mazda Stadium, Hiroshima ace Kenta Maeda (15-8) allowed a run in seven innings and hit a two-run homer to outduel Chunichi rookie Shunta Wakamatsu (9-4).
The win lifted the Carp to within a half-game of the third-place Tigers in the battle for the CL’s final playoff spot.
Eagles 4, Marines 3
At Chiba’s QVC Marine Field, Zelous Wheeler homered and drove in four runs as last-place Tohoku Rakuten defeated playoff-chasing Chiba Lotte.
Staff Writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.