Not too long ago the Hanshin Tigers were running away with the Central League race.

Oh how things have changed.

The Tigers have watched their big lead dwindle over the past two months as the surging Yomiuri Giants have gained ground ahead of a crucial three-game series between the two old rivals which begins Friday at Tokyo Dome.

On July 13, the Tigers had turned the CL race into a battle for second-place having built an 11-game lead over the Giants at the top of the standings.

Since then Hanshin has been beset by inconsistency but has remained on the top of the league despite faltering to a 23-25-1 record since July 13.

Yomiuri meanwhile is finally healthy and firing on all cylinders. The Kyojin completed a sweep of the the Yokohama BayStars with a 6-2 win on Wednesday night that left them just three games behind the Tigers.

The Giants, who are 30-16 since July 13, have been the CL’s hottest team this month and enter the series on a seven-game winning streak.

The re-emergence of Lee Seug Yeop, who homered three times against Yokohama on Tuesday night, only adds another facet to a Giants offense that has battered opposing pitching staffs recently.

The Tigers have a few tricks of their own at the plate with wily veterans Tomoaki Kanemoto and Akihiro Yano leading the charge.

Offense has been a problem lately for the Tigers (though that wasn’t the case Wednesday in an 11-6 pounding of the Chunichi Dragons), who have used pitching to maintain their slim lead.

The squads have been fairly evenly matched in their 19 meetings this year with the Tigers holding a 10-9 edge in the season series.

With so much on the line, both teams turned relievers into starters earlier this week in order to have their best pitchers ready to take the mound at Tokyo Dome.

Looking ahead, the Tigers seem to have a slightly easier road the rest of the way than the Giants.

Hanshin exits the upcoming series with a seven-game homestand beginning Sept. 22 with four games against the lowly Yokohama BayStars.

The Tigers then host the Giants on Sept. 27 before facing the Hiroshima Carp and Chunichi Dragons in their final two home games of the season.

Hanshin then hits the road for a four-game set against Tokyo Yakult to start October, then takes on the BayStars in Yokohama on Oct. 7.

The Tigers return to Tokyo Dome to face the Giants on Oct. 8 then end the season on Oct. 10 in Yokohama.

Yomiuri, meanwhile, faces a slate of games against teams with a lot left to play for.

After hosting the Tigers, Yomiuri runs a six-game gauntlet against teams in the thick of the playoff race. They start with a four-game road trip to Hiroshima beginning Sept. 22 then host the Tigers before facing the Dragons in Nagoya.

The Giants end September against Yokohama, then host the Dragons for a two-game set Oct. 5-6.

After meeting the Tigers again, the Giants host Yokohama on Oct. 9 then play Yakult twice to end the season.

Bittersweet milestone: Tohoku Rakuten pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma turned in another masterful performance on Tuesday night as the Eagles star continues to creep toward the 20-win plateau.

Iwakuma, who hasn’t lost since July 13 against Chiba Lotte, threw a complete game against Hokkaido Nippon Ham, allowing one run on three hits and striking out eight to improve to 19-3 and move within a game of his first 20-win season.

Should he reach the mark, Iwakuma would become the first pitcher in 34 years to win 20 games for a last-place team.

Motoyasu Kaneshige was the last to achieve the feat, winning 20 games for the lowly Hiroshima Carp in 1974.

Turning back the clock: The Carp play their final regular-season home game at Hiroshima Stadium on Sept. 28 against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. Before that Hiroshima will harken back to the old days by wearing throwback uniforms for their upcoming series against the Yomiuri Giants, who make their final visit to the ballpark, beginning Sept. 22.

The Carp will move into a new stadium to start the 2009 season.

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