Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Tomoyuki Sugano-no: near-perfect game sends Giants to CL Climax Series final

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

If there was any lingering doubt about who Japan’s best pitcher was, Tomoyuki Sugano put it to rest.

Just like he did the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ season.

Sugano sent the Yomiuri Giants to the next round of the postseason in style, twirling a no-hitter in the Giants’ 4-0 victory over the Tokyo Yakult Swallows on Sunday. The win gave the Giants a two-game sweep of the Central League Climax Series First Stage.

“It just feels so great,” Sugano said of his achievement, the first-ever no-hitter in a Climax Series game.

“I don’t know exactly what to say, but I really feel a sense of accomplishment.”

Sugano retired the first 20 batters he faced before walking Tetsuto Yamada with two outs in the seventh. He quickly regrouped to strike out CL RBI champion Wladimir Balentien to end the frame, and then sat down the Swallows in order in the eighth and ninth.

“He threw a great game,” Balentien said. “He just threw a great game today. He wasn’t missing his spots, and he had good control.”

Hisayoshi Chono gave the Giants an early lead with a solo home run in the second. Casey McGehee tacked on another run with a home run on the first pitch of the fourth and Yoshiyuki Kamei made it 4-0 with a two-run blast later in the inning.

Sugano took it from there. Yamada was the only baserunner he allowed and the right-hander finished with seven strikeouts.

“Pretty much standard Sugano,” McGehee said. “It just seems like he does what he wants with the ball. The bigger the situation, the slower his heartbeat gets and he just seems like he’s in complete control.”

Sugano methodically went up and down the Yakult lineup, piling up out after out with the Swallows unable to muster up much resistance.

“I began thinking about it around the sixth inning,” Sugano said. “This would’ve been our second no-hitter this year (Shun Yamaguchi no-hit the Chunichi Dragons on July 27) so (catcher Seiji) Kobayashi was aware of it as well.”

He came extremely close to throwing the first perfect game by a single pitcher since Yomiuri’s Hiromi Makihara in 1994. The Chunichi Dragons’ Daisuke Yamai and Hitoki Iwase threw a combined perfect game in the fifth and final game of the 2007 Japan Series.

With the count at 2-1 against Yamada in the seventh, Sugano threw a fastball the Swallows star fouled off. Yamada fouled off another fastball before taking a slider to go ahead 3-2. Yamada fouled off another pitch before Sugano missed low with a slider to put Yamada on with a walk after an eight-pitch at-bat.

Sugano was animated on the mound after striking out Balentien to end the seventh and again following the eighth.

“I was really going for it, so I wish I could take that walk back,” Sugano said. “But I’m still satisfied.”

Sugano had entered the game 1-5 in his career at Jingu Stadium, with his only victory coming in 2016. But he was also coming in on a roll, having tossed shutouts in his previous three starts.

“He was already pitching amazingly well over the last part of the season coming into today,” Giants manager Yoshinobu Takahashi said.

Yakult starter Juri Hara’s night came to a premature end after he allowed four runs, all on home runs, in four innings on the hill.

“My condition wasn’t bad, it’s just regrettable I gave up the three home runs,” Hara said. “On the second and third, I threw the ball in places it could be easily hit.”

The Kyojin now move on to the final stage against the Hiroshima Carp to determine the CL’s Japan Series representative. That series is scheduled for six games and begins on Wednesday at Hiroshima’s Mazda Stadium. The Carp will host the entire final stage and also begin the series with a 1-0 advantage as the league champions.

For the Swallows, it’s on to next year. The team finished last in the league — 44 games out of first place — in 2017 only to soar into second place this season.

“We turned things around,” Balentien said. “We had a great season. We have a great group of guys. Everybody stepped up and did their job.”

Despite the finality of Sunday’s game, the Birds left Jingu with their heads held high.

“I never lost faith in our team,” Balentien said. “We had a lot of injuries last year, that’s why it was tough to play. But this year, everybody stayed healthy. Nobody expected this from us. Everybody thought we were going to finish last or fifth. But here we are, we had a great year. I’m just proud of everybody in that clubhouse.”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.