The Yomiuri Giants clinched their first Central League pennant in two seasons and their 39th overall, but it tasted rather bitter than sweet because they suffered a “sayonara loss” to the Hanshin Tigers 3-2 after 12 innings Tuesday at Koshien Stadium.
In the bottom of the 12th inning, Yomiuri reliever Yukinaga Maeda threw a wild pitch with the bases loaded and gave up the winning run to the hosts.
Despite the defeat, the Giants captured the title because second place Yakult Swallows lost to the Chunichi Dragons 9-4 earlier on Tuesday at the Nagoya Dome.
In 2000, a not-in-top-form Yomiuri Giants team still went on to claim the Central League crown, despite sluggish performances and injuries suffered by several key players.
This season, they once again proved they have enough talent to get the job done, even without their star-studded lineup in top form.
Critics may say that the other five teams in the league were responsible for Yomiuri’s success this year, squandering a huge opportunity to take out the Giants when they were struck with injuries. This is partly true.
Nevertheless, looking at how well the substitutes did in filling in for the injured starters, it’s fair to say that the subs played a major role in Yomiuri’s title race this season.
Apart from Triple Crown candidate Hideki Matsui and leadoff hitter/left-fielder Takayuki Shimizu, the rest of the regular starters each got injured at least once and were out of action for portions of the season.
Matsui has had a career year this season. Never before in his 10-year career has the 28-year-old outfielder been in such bang-on form from the outset of the season. Often a slow starter, Matsui — usually a humble man not prone to bold predictions — had stated on several different occasions prior to the start of the season that this year he would be aiming for the Triple Crown.
And he has so far lived up to his own billing, currently leading the CL in batting average (.339), home runs (45) and RBIs (98).
Shimizu has also had an outstanding season at the plate, racking up a CL-leading 183 hits and hitting .319 with 13 home runs, more than good enough to make up for his sloppy defense in the outfield.
These two players aside, starters Toshihisa Nishi, Akira Eto and Yoshinobu Takahashi missed part of the season with injuries and, even when they were healthy, their performances were well below average.
With the injury situation as it was, the usual nigun (minor-league) players had to carry a lot of the load, but they handled the burden pretty well.
The Giants even survived the loss of catcher Shinnosuke Abe to injury — the position Yomiuri was expected to have the most trouble filling.
Abe was enjoying a great season until late June when he injured his thigh in a collision with a runner at home plate. During the three-week absence of Abe, however, Yoshinori Murata and Kohei Oda kept their pitching staff rolling along.
Second-year catcher Abe has improved dramatically since last season, batting .305 with 17 home runs. He has been Yomiuri’s clutch hitter this season with four game-winning hits and could become the first Giants catcher in club history to finish the season with a batting average above .300.
Koji Uehara, coming off two disappointing seasons, looked to be on pace for his second 20-win year since his rookie season in 1999. With eight games remaining, he already leads the CL in wins with a 17-4 record while compiling a 2.53 ERA in 25 starts.
Veteran hurler Masumi Kuwata has also made a great comeback from several lackluster seasons.
In his 17th pro season this year, the 34-year-old Kuwata began with a couple of unlucky losses before picking up the pace to go 11-6 — reaching double-digit wins for the first time since going 16-5 in 1998 — with a CL-topping 2.30 ERA.
Overall, the Giants were stable all year, with their longest losing streak being four games, which happened twice.
Dragons 9, Swallows 4
Motonobu Tanishige drilled a two-run homer to cap a four-run first inning as Chunichi romped Yakult at the Nagoya Dome.
Carp 4, BayStars 3
Koichi Ogata singled home the winning run that ended a 3-3 deadlock in the seventh inning, pacing Hiroshima over Yokohama at Hiroshima Stadium.
Lions 11, BlueWave 2
The Pacific League champion Seibu hammered last-place Orix on four homers and a strong start by Chang Chin-chia, moving 40 games over .500 for the first time this season.
Two homers by Tom Evans and one each from Kazuo Matsui and Hiroyuki Oshima led an 11-hit attack for the PL champs, who won their second in three games since clinching the title Saturday.
Buffaloes 7, Hawks 4
At the Osaka Dome, Tadatoki Maeda singled home to break a 4-4 tie in a three-run eighth inning and Kintetsu held off Daiei to move into second place.
Fighters 9, Marines 0
At the Tokyo Dome, Itsuki Shoda (7-10) threw eight scoreless innings and Takaya Hayashi had four RBIs as Nippon Ham thrashed Lotte for the Marines’ 16th shutout loss of the season.
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