The roar of the fans in the stands after the final out could probably be heard all the way to Hiroshima. Very soon, the Yokohama BayStars players will be trying to make their voices heard there as well.
Yokohama’s Hiroki Minei, who played in only 11 games during the regular season, was an unlikely hero, hitting a tiebreaking RBI single in the top of the 11th inning, and the game ended when a fly ball by Yomiuri’s Shinnosuke Abe died tantalizingly close to the stands in right-center as the BayStars edged the Giants 4-3 in the third and final game of the Central League Climax Series First Stage on Monday.
“This is the biggest hit and the biggest moment of my career so far,” said Minei, a third-year player.
The BayStars won the series 2-1 and will move on to the final stage, where they’ll face the CL champion Hiroshima Carp for the right to represent the league in the Japan Series. The Carp will begin that best-of-seven series, which starts Oct. 12 at Hiroshima’s Mazda Stadium, with an automatic 1-0 lead as the pennant winner.
“We are going to Hiroshima and will take it one game at a time,” Minei said. “I know our fans will support us there as well and we’ll do our best to get into the Japan Series.”
The BayStars had five players hit 10 or more home runs during the regular season and four who drove in 49 runs or more. But in the end, it was a seldom-used backup catcher, who has five career home runs and 32 RBIs in 95 games, who struck the decisive blow.
“He’s been swinging the bat pretty well,” BayStars manager Alex Ramirez said of Minei. “I told him before the game, ‘be ready, we may pinch-hit early in the game.’ I never expected him to get that big hit that late in the game. I was expecting him to hit earlier in the game. But it was great.”
It seemed like the BayStars would have a good chance to break a 3-3 tie in the 10th inning, when they sent Jose Lopez and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, a pair of All-Stars, to the plate. But they, and Toshiro Miyazaki, went down in order against Hirokazu Sawamura.
Toshihiko Kuramoto hit a ball that bounced off Sawamura’s foot to start the 11th, and the pitcher left the game in pain. Kuramoto took second on a sacrifice bunt with Seiji Tahara on the mound. That brought Minei to the plate, and the BayStars fans among the 45,477 in attendance erupted when his sharply hit ball landed fair in left field, allowing Kuramoto to score.
“I’m glad it was my hit that won the game for us,” Minei said. “I didn’t get to start, but I’m glad I got a chance to play.
“With a runner at second base, I knew we could score if I got a hit, so I just tried to make contact.”
BayStars closer Yasuaki Yamasaki worked the bottom of the 11th and nearly gave up a three-run homer against Abe with two outs. Abe put a good swing on Yamasaki’s final pitch, but didn’t have enough on it to get the ball into the stands. Taiki Sekine made the catch in front of the wall to end the series.
The BayStars are in the Climax Series for the first time and their stay will be extended for at least three more games, if not longer.
“The guys fought until the end, and the relievers did a tremendous job keeping us in the game,” Ramirez said.
Left-hander Kenjiro Tanaka threw two scoreless innings for the win. Sawamura was charged with the loss. Yokohama also got a good game out of starter Kenta Ishida, who allowed three runs in 5⅓ innings.
“Ishida did a tremendous job today,” Ramirez said. “He kept himself in a very good balance. His combination of pitches were really good. The runs that he gave up were home runs. So it’s a shoganai (can’t be helped) situation right there, but he did a tremendous job today.”
The pitching staff held CL batting champion Hayato Sakamoto in check. After going 5-for-7 with a pair of homers in Games 1 and 2, Sakamoto was 1-for-5 in the finale.
“We pitched him pretty good today,” Ramirez said. “The last two days, we really studied him.”
The Giants were limited to just six hits, three coming from Shuichi Murata, who had two singles and a home run.
Lopez drove in the first two runs of the game with a home run, his second of the series, in the first inning.
The Giants evened the score on a two-run homer from Abe in the bottom of the inning.
A sacrifice fly put Yokohama ahead in the second, only for the Giants to answer in the sixth on a solo home run from Murata.
The score remained tied 3-3 until the dramatic finish in the 11th.
The BayStars lost outfielder Takayuki Kajitani early in the game when he was hit in the hand by a pitch in the first inning and was unable to remain in the game.
“At this point, I don’t know yet,” Ramirez said when asked about Kajitani’s condition. “We’re just going to take it day-by-day. Hopefully he’s better.”