The No. 2 seed in the Central League was right there for the taking, and that’s exactly what the Hanshin Tigers did.
Shunsuke Fujikawa homered and drove in two runs and Hanshin nailed down the No. 2 spot in the CL with a 5-1 victory over the Yomiuri Giants on Saturday night at Tokyo Dome.
The yellow and black-clad fans who filled the seats in left field roared their approval when informed, during Fujikawa’s hero interview, the race for second place was over.
“That’s good,” Fujikawa said. “I’m happy.”
The Tigers have a 4 1/2-game lead over the third-place Yokohama BayStars with three games remaining for both teams.
“We’re still going to take it game by game and play our kind of baseball,” Fujikawa said. “We hope to win in the Climax Series.”
Finishing second means the Tigers will host the third-place team in the first stage of the Climax Series. The winner of that three-game series, which begins on Oct. 14 at Koshien Stadium, will advance to face the CL champion Hiroshima Carp in the final stage for the right to play in the Japan Series.
The Tigers’ victory over the Giants had the added benefit of dealing a blow to their bitter rivals’ chances of reaching the postseason at all. Yomiuri, which has never missed the Climax Series since it was adopted in the CL in 2007, remained a half-game behind the BayStars, who lost to the Carp on Saturday, in the race for third place.
Fujikawa had a big night at the plate for Hanshin, finishing 3-for-5 with a pair of RBIs. He began the game with a leadoff double, and drove in a run in the second inning with an RBI single.
“There was a chance because of the bunt (a sacrifice by pitcher Yuta Iwasada that moved a runner to second), so I was just thinking of a way to get the runner in,” Fujikawa said.
He picked up his third hit of the night in the seventh, driving in an insurance run with a solo home run to right off reliever Scott Mathieson to make the score 3-1.
“That was a spot where we wanted to add a run, and I was trying to get on base,” he said. “I’m glad it ended up well.”
Iwasada (5-10) gave Hanshin five innings on the mound, allowing one run on five hits. He struck out six and walked three batters.
“I wasn’t trying to protect the early runs I was given, but trying to be aggressive,” said Iwasada, who won for the first time since July 2, snapping a string of five straight losing decisions.
Giants starter Seishu Hatake was charged with the loss on a night he threw just four pitches. Hatake (6-4) allowed Fujikawa’s double with his third pitch of the night and was tossed for a dangerous pitch after hitting Hiroki Uemoto in the head with his fourth.
Uemoto was in a bunting position and was struck on the side of the helmet while trying to get out of the way of a slider. He walked off under his own power, but was taken out of the game.
Kosuke Fukudome drove in a run charged to Hatake with an RBI groundout later in the inning. The Tigers then went ahead 2-0 on Fujikawa’s single in the second.
The Giants made it a one-run game in the bottom of the second, scoring on Shuichi Murata’s solo homer.
The right-handed hitting Fujikawa tacked another run onto the lead when he sent Mathieson’s fastball into the seats in right field in the seventh.
“I was surprised myself,” he said.
Ryutaro Umeno and Masahiro Nakatani drove in runs for Hanshin in the eighth to make it 5-1, and reliever Rafael Dolis closed out the game on the mound in the ninth.
Carp prevail in 10th
At Yokohama Stadium, Veteran pinch hitter Takahiro Arai hit a tie-breaking, two-run double and rookie Shogo Sakakura drove in two runs with his first career hit in the top of the 10th inning as the Hiroshima Carp defeated the Yokohama BayStars 5-1 on Saturday.
Swallows 7, Dragons 5
At Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium, Tomotaka Sakaguchi broke a tie with a bases-loaded, two-run single in the eighth as last-place Tokyo Yakult came from behind to defeat Chunichi.
The Swallows snapped a seven-game losing streak.
Fighters 4, Lions 3
At Sapporo Dome, Brandon Laird singled in a game-tying run and rookie Toshitake Yokoo hit a sacrifice fly in the eighth to lift Hokkaido Nippon Ham over Seibu.
Marines 4, Eagles 3
At Sendai’s Kobo Park, Wily Mo Pena’s sacrifice fly in the sixth put last-place Chiba Lotte ahead 3-2 and his solo home run in the eighth provided a crucial insurance run in a victory over third-place Tohoku Rakuten.
Buffaloes 9, Hawks 7
At Osaka’s Kyocera Dome, Chris Marrero belted his 20th home run of the season and his eighth-inning, two-run double broke a 7-7 tie as Orix rode a five-run eighth to a comeback triumph over league champion Fukuoka SoftBank.