If you don’t get to the Tokyo Yakult Swallows early, you might not get to the Birds at all.
A number of things have helped fuel the team’s rise from CL cellar-dweller to CL champion this season. Among them has been Yakult’s late-inning quartet of closer Tony Barnette and fellow relievers Ryo Akiyoshi, Logan Ondrusek and Orlando Roman, which has proven to be a formidable force out of the bullpen.
“Back in the States, I was part of a really good bullpen for three or four years,” said Ondrusek, who pitched for the Cincinnati Reds from 2010-14. “When we were really good, if you gave us the lead after seven innings, nine times out of 10, we were gonna win.
“This year, it’s been the same way. If the starters give us five or six innings, we have me, Roman, Tony, and Akiyoshi where we can shut it down and end the game. That’s what we’re looking forward to, the starters giving us five or six good innings just to get it to the bullpen, and we can shut it down.”
The four relievers are a big reason the club was preparing for the Central League Climax Series final stage at its indoor practice facility on Tuesday afternoon. Yakult will face the Yomiuri Giants for the right to advance to the Japan Series in the final stage, which begins Wednesday at Jingu Stadium. The Swallows have an automatic one-game advantage in the six-game series as the pennant winners.
“They’re a veteran lineup,” Barnette said of the Kyojin. “They’ve all been here before. It’s nothing new to them. Obviously, they’ve got threats in their lineup. Certain guys are getting hot at certain times and other guys have been steady all year.”
In NPB years, Barnette and Roman are veterans of Yakult’s late-inning quartet, having been in Japan for six and four seasons, respectively. Both also entered this season after injuries led to abbreviated 2014 campaigns.
Barnette, a starter-turned-reliever-turned-star reliever, bounced back in a big way in 2015, finishing tied for the CL lead with 41 saves, a franchise record, while also posting a 1.29 ERA in 59 appearances.
Roman, who picked up the win in relief when the team clinched the CL pennant Oct. 2, did a lot of the dirty work for Yakult, tasked with extracting the team out of tough spots on more than one occasion. He made 61 appearances and notched 23 holds in 2015.
Akiyoshi is a second-year right-hander who made 74 appearances, the most by a pitcher in any league, and finished with six wins, 22 holds and 81 strikeouts in 76 1/3 innings. He is still a work in progress, but has shown a lot of improvement in the quality of his pitches since his rookie year.
The 2015 season was Ondrusek’s first in Japan. It didn’t take too long to adjust to NPB life, as he ended the year tied for the league lead with 33 holds. The right-hander also struck out 62 batters in 70 1/3 innings and has allowed just one run in his last 23 appearances.
“There are growing pains that come along with coming over here, adjusting to hitters, adjusting to the rules, different styles, stuff like that, but he’s adjusted really well,” Barnette said. “He had a couple of little snafus early on, but he adjusted really well. Being that big (Ondrusek is 203 cm and 104 kg), throwing that hard, coming downhill the way he does at guys, it’s not easy for hitters. He’s just adjusted himself with his stuff. He really bought into the system, bought into what we were doing.
“With me and Roman there to help, being out in the bullpen and being able to talk to him about certain things, I think that’s helped him. But he’s a smart guy, he’s a successful guy. He’s got good stuff and him putting it all together pretty quickly just really worked out for everyone involved.”
Yakult will have had a long break between the end of their season (Oct. 4) and the beginning of the final stage, where the next challenge will be to find a way to cut down the Giants.
The Kyojin scored six runs — three earned — off Akiyoshi in 13 innings during the regular season and got to Roman three times in 12 frames. Barnette and Ondrusek combined to throw 25 scoreless innings against Yomiuri.
“It doesn’t really change,” Ondrusek said of his approach to the series. “You do what you’ve always been doing. You trust your stuff, you trust what information you have, and you go from there. If you try to reinvent too much now, it’s just going to cause a bunch of problems.
“Basically, it’s just attack the guys that you know and the guys who can beat you, you don’t let them beat you. That’s the main thing.”
The Giants won the regular-season series 13-12, though the Swallows won seven of their last 12 meetings.
“It’s an organization that’s won a lot,” Barnette said of Yomiuri. “They’re used to it. We’ve faced them a lot. We know what we’re expecting, and they know what they’re expecting. It’s not like we haven’t seen them before.”
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