Tokyo Yakult Swallows fans were singing in the rain on Friday night at Jingu Stadium. If their club can come up with one more win, the Yakult faithful will carry their tune all the way to Fukuoka.
The Swallows broke through against Giants starter Tomoyuki Sugano in a two-run sixth and held on for a 2-0 win in Game 3 of the Central League Climax Series final stage on Friday night in front of a crowd of 33,102.
“This is a game that could’ve gone either way,” Yakult manager Mitsuru Manaka said. “Neither team deserved to lose.”
The Swallows lead the series 3-1 (after beginning with an automatic 1-0 advantage) and will advance to the Japan Series with their next victory.
“We’re one win away, but we’ll play (the next game) with the same mindset we had today,” Yakult starter Shohei Tateyama said.
The defending champion Fukuoka Softbank Hawks punched their ticket to the Japanese Fall Classic by defeating the Chiba Lotte Marines 3-1 earlier in the night to earn a three-game sweep in the Pacific League’s final stage.
Sugano didn’t pitch well against Yakult during the regular season but was up to the challenge on Friday. He kept the Swallows off the board early and survived a fourth inning that saw Yakult put runners on second and third with just one out.
Yakult launched a renewed offensive against him in the sixth, getting the first three batters of the inning safely aboard. Yuhei Takai hit a double-play ball up the middle, and that was enough to get a Yakult run across. After Wladimir Balentien was hit with a pitch, Takahiro Imanami, who grounded out with the bases loaded to end the fourth, knocked in an insurance run with a two-out single.
“I played dead in my first and second at-bats, and it was my time to step up,” Imanami joked.
Tateyama got the ball to start the contest and picked up where Game 2 starter Yasuhiro “Ryan” Ogawa left off, turning in six shutout innings in the victory. Tateyama struck out five and walked two.
“I thought he was pitching a great game, and fielding behind him, I just wanted to contribute defensively,” Imanami said.
The Yakult bullpen held the Kyojin in check after Tateyama departed. Closer Tony Barnette allowed a hit and walked a batter in the ninth, but didn’t give up any runs and converted the save.
For Tateyama, everything went according to plan.
“We have great relief pitchers, so I was going to go all out and hope we got on the board first,” he said.
The Swallows’ Shingo Kawabata celebrated his 28th birthday with a three-hit game, while Takai finished 2-for-4.
Sugano turned in his best performance of the year at Jingu Stadium, where he was 0-3 with a 6.89 ERA during the regular season. The reigning CL MVP left with nothing to show for it after allowing two runs on seven hits in six innings. He struck out three and walked a pair.
“Sugano did his best and pitched great tonight, but we could not give him any run support,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said. “It was very unfortunate.”
The Giants were shut out for the second straight night and haven’t scored since the sixth inning of Game 1. On Friday, Yomiuri managed just five hits, two of which came off the bat of infielder Shinnosuke Abe. The Yomiuri veteran has been a tough out and is 9-for-12 in the series.
Abe singled to lead off the fourth and went to second on a wild pitch with Hisayoshi Chono at the plate. He advanced to third when Chono grounded out, but was stranded when the next two Yomiuri batters each flied out to left.
There were Swallows on second and third with two outs in the fifth when the Giants intentionally walked slugger Wladimir Balentien. The strategy paid off when Sugano retired Imanami on a ground ball to first to end the inning.
Imanami got his revenge with his RBI single in the sixth.
After I got the hit, I said to myself ‘You did it,’ ” Imanami said.
The two teams are scheduled to return to Jingu Stadium for Game 4 Saturday night. The Swallows will be trying to advance, while the Giants hope to force a fifth game.
“We can’t get loose yet,” Imanami said. “We want to take it one game at a time until the deal is sealed.”
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