The race for the Central League title seems to be all but over with the Yomiuri Giants coasting with a 7 1/2-game lead over the Chunichi Dragons.
The competition for second is pretty much done as well, with the Dragons 11 games ahead of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.
Third place, however, is a work in progress.
The Swallows had a firm grip on the coveted spot on July 31, when they led the fourth-place Hanshin Tigers by 11 1/2 games and had a 12-game advantage on the fifth-place Hiroshima Carp.
Yakult’s 8-24-1 slide since then has complicated matters as all three teams are now in the race for the final spot in the CL Climax Series. Entering Thursday, the Tigers were 1 1/2 games out of third with the Carp another game back.
Hiroshima has taken the biggest step in the right direction this month, going 6-2 since Sept. 1, while the Swallows are 1-6-1 and the Tigers 5-3 over the same period.
Little more than an afterthought just a month ago, Hiroshima stormed into Jingu Stadium and rallied past Yakult for a 6-3 win on Tuesday and a 9-0 romp on Wednesday to put itself solidly into playoff contention.
“We just have to play good, solid baseball and not worry about the other teams,” Carp manager Marty Brown said Tuesday.
“We showed that we want it,” Brown added. “Now it’s just a matter of if we’re going to be able to take it or not. I think we’re in as good a position as the other teams right now. Even though we’re in fifth place and we’re still below them, I think we’re playing good baseball and we’re going to give ourselves a chance.”
Making matters worse for Yakult are the injuries that have ravaged its bullpen and a nagging blister that has sidelined starting pitcher Yoshinori Sato.
The bullpen issues came into play on Tuesday, after starter Shohei Tateyama was left in to throw 137 pitches and eventually gave up a game-tying run in the eighth inning.
“We were thinking about the bullpen,” Swallows pitching coach Daisuke Araki said. “So we wanted to have him last as long as possible.”
Struggling to hold on to their position, the Swallows play both the Tigers and Carp six more times this season. Yakult has eight games against the Yokohama BayStars left on its schedule.
Facing the woeful CL cellar dwellers would be advantageous if the BayStars weren’t 12-4 against the Swallows this season.
Hiroshima leaves Jingu on Thursday and faces a season-defining gauntlet with consecutive series against the Giants, Dragons (both at home) Tigers (road) and Swallows (home) before another road series against the Giants.
The Tigers, meanwhile, have three games upcoming against the BayStars before hitting the road to face the Giants, then hosting the Swallows.
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