The Tokyo Yakult Swallows may have lost against the Hiroshima Carp on Sunday, but all in all it was still a good week to be a Swallows fan.
The team went 4-1-1 last week, and put a few more games between themselves and the Yomiuri Giants in the race to finish second in the Central League. Yakult, idle on Monday, has a 4½-game lead on Yomiuri.
The pennant may be out of reach — the Carp have a magic number of four, and the proverbial fat lady has been singing for weeks now — but a second-place finish is still extremely important. Finishing second means hosting the entire three-game CL Climax Series First Stage, where a tie game would also basically amount to a Yakult win.
Finishing third means playing the first stage on the road before also playing the Final Stage, against the pennant winner, entirely away from home in order to reach the Japan Series.
That made the past week a crucial test for the Birds, and they passed with flying colors by winning two and tying one against the Giants and sweeping a two-game set with the Hanshin Tigers before running into Hiroshima.
“You can feel the suspense in the air,” said Swallows pitcher David Buchanan, who pitched seven innings of one-run ball in the middle game against Yomiuri. “It’s us and the Giants fighting for second and third, so it’s a really cool atmosphere.”
Perhaps the most encouraging sign was how well the Swallows’ much-maligned pitching staff performed. Yasuhiro “Ryan” Ogawa began the week with eight innings of one-run ball, Buchanan followed with his strong performance and Tomoya Hoshi allowed a single run over six in his turn. On Friday, Juri Hara threw eight shutout frames.
Per Deltagraphs, the Swallows’ 3.76 team ERA over the past 30 days (27 games) is the third-best in Japan. It’s a small sample cut out of an entire season — Yakult began the week with the fourth-worst ERA (4.27) overall — but should at least give the team some momentum, despite the four unearned runs starter Kenji Takahashi yielded Sunday.
The Swallows already have a Japan Series-caliber offense centered around Tetsuto Yamada and Wladimir Balentien. Even halfway decent pitching would make them very dangerous in the postseason.
But before thinking about that, the Swallows will be trying to protect their place in the standings. The team still has two games remaining against the Giants, both this week, and three, all on the road, left against the Carp.
Because the Central League is so tightly packed, an inopportune cold stretch could be the difference between Yakult playing in October and merely watching on television.
“We’ve just kept the same mentality,” said Balentien. “Since Day 1, everybody has been so close. The only team that’s run away has been the Carp. But the whole season, everybody was right there. You lose two games, you’re in the five spot, you win two games you’re back in second place.”
Right now it’s the Swallows holding down the second spot and the Birds are determined to keep the good times rolling until the end of the regular season.