Before the 2015 NPB season, Nippon Television commentator Suguru Egawa, a former Yomiuri Giants pitcher, named the Tokyo Yakult Swallows as his pick to win the Central League pennant.
Egawa has always been somewhat of an iconoclast, but picking a team breaking in a new manager and coming off consecutive last-place finishes — and ahead of his Giants no less — still raised a few eyebrows.
Turns out, Egawa was onto something, because after a gritty win over the Giants on Sunday afternoon, the Swallows began Monday with a magic number of three in their improbable run to the CL flag.
“It’s an exciting time to be a Swallows fan and it’s an exciting time to be a Swallows player,” said Tony Barnette, who got four tough outs to record his 39th save of the season in Sunday’s crucial 2-1 victory.
Yakult hasn’t won the CL title since 2001. There are no active Yakult players left from that team. The Swallows’ first-year manager, Mitsuru Manaka, was an outfielder on the 2001 squad and made his first and only All-Star team that season.
There was little indication before the season that this year’s squad would be the one to scratch the 14-year itch.
The Swallows always had talented players, but had trouble keeping them healthy. Over the past two years especially, a rash of injures helped precipitate a fall down the standings and into the CL basement.
There were also injuries to deal with this year — star slugger Wladimir Balentien and pitcher Shohei Tateyama each missed most of the season — but the Birds managed to persevere.
“It’s been the next-man-up mentality,” Barnette said. “Obviously we’ve had unbelievable contributions from (Shingo) Kawabata and (Tetsuto) Yamada, those guys are having unbelievable years. Boo (Kazuhiro Hatekeyama) is the steady anchor in the middle of the lineup, and Boo’s doing what Boo does.
“The other guys are falling in line. Everybody’s playing their role. Everybody’s doing their job. That’s the beautiful thing, guys are taking what they do seriously. They’re not worried about what’s going on around them, they’re just worried about doing their job to the best of their ability and when someone goes down, another guy is ready to take his place and pick up the slack.”
The Birds are solid at the plate behind CL batting leader Kawabata, RBI king Hatakeyama and their Mr. Do Everything, Yamada, who entered Monday leading the CL with 37 home runs and 34 stolen bases, and was also hitting .330 for good measure.
On the mound, the starters need only to get the ball to the back of the bullpen, where bearded shutdown artists Logan Ondrusek and Barnette lie in wait.
“We’ve got a good feeling, but there are still games left,” Manaka told media on Sunday. “We’ll take it one by one and try to keep this feeling.”
The versatile Birds can win pitcher’s duels and slugfests.
They prevailed in the former on Sunday.
Pitcher Masanori Ishikawa set the tone on the mound and also struck the first blow with an RBI single in the fifth. The bullpen took over in the sixth and protected the lead until Barnette shut the door in the ninth and exploded in a rush of emotion after the final out.
“I think today’s game was a big one,” Ishikawa said during his hero interview. “We’re going to work hard together as a team to try and win it.”
Finishing first would cap an exciting journey for Yakult. It would also give the team a push toward its next goal, which will be to end a special year as Japan Series champions, just like the 2001 squad did.
The Birds will have to make it through the final stage of the CL Climax Series to reach the Japanese Fall Classic. If they win the pennant, they’ll have the luxury of hosting the final stage of the Climax Series at home in cozy Jingu Stadium.
“Jingu is a different place to play baseball,” Barnette said. “It’s a different atmosphere. You can talk to a lot of visiting pitchers and you’ll be hard pressed to find one who says they like pitching in Jingu. Obviously, guys like us (Swallows pitchers), we’re used to it from doing it for so long. We know what to expect.
“Jingu can play games with you as a pitcher. It’s a tough place to play. Our hitters obviously, they like hitting there. Coco (Balentien) likes hitting there, Yamada also. It’s a tough place to play, and I think it works to our advantage to win the title and have those home games at Jingu.”
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