Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Giants riding wave of momentum into final stage showdown against Carp

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Tomoyuki Sugano turned, slapped his glove and thrust both arms into air once the ball was safely secure in Daikan Yoh’s glove in center field. He wore a broad smile as catcher Seiji Kobayashi enveloped him in a hug near the mound at Jingu Stadium. The rest of the Yomiuri Giants were beaming as well.

A postseason no-hitter, the first in Climax Series history, and in the series-clinching game no less, seems to have that effect on people.

Sugano’s only blemish was a walk issued to Tetsuto Yamada in the seventh and the Kyojin hitters backed him with three home runs in a 4-0 victory over the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in Game 2 of the Central League Climax Series First Stage on Sunday. Yomiuri swept the series 2-0.

“Our team set the table yesterday and I was able to pitch with a lot of momentum behind me,” Sugano said, referring to Yomiuri’s 4-1 win in Game 1 against Yakult with Giants’ nemesis Yasuhiro “Ryan” Ogawa starting for the Swallows.

Yomiuri’s reward for winning the series is date against the Hiroshima Carp, winners of the last three CL pennants, in the final stage. The Carp will host the entire series and also begin with an automatic one-game advantage as the league champions. The winner advances to the Japan Series.

Yomiuri will be a heavy underdog. The Giants were 7-17-1 against the Carp during the regular season, winning just two of their 12 games at Hiroshima’s Mazda Stadium. The Carp were 44-24-2 at their home park overall.

“All we can do is go play our best game,” said third baseman Casey McGehee, who hit one of Yomiuri’s three homers on Sunday. “They obviously are a really good team, they don’t make a lot of mistakes. We just gotta go in and hopefully take the confidence we’ve got right now with us.”

As a team, the powerful Carp offense hit .274 against the Giants this season. Hiroshima was a bit more vulnerable on the mound in those games, with a 4.07 ERA.

Yomiuri may be catching a Carp team shaking off a little rust after having not played since their Oct. 7 season finale. The Giants, on the other hand, have been in playoff mode since mid-September as they battled the Yokohama BayStars for the final spot in the CL Climax Series. Yomiuri is 8-2-1 (including the first stage) since Sept. 22.

“Every day is different,” McGehee said. “You never know what’s going to happen day-to-day. Never thought Sugano was going to throw a no-hitter with one walk, almost throw a perfect game.”

Sugano’s night may have been unexpected, but it didn’t come entirely out of nowhere.

The Yomiuri ace has been in dominant form recently. Sugano has thrown shutouts in four of his last six starts and has allowed two earned runs in his last 51 innings.

He was in complete control on Sunday. The Swallows didn’t get a runner on base until the seventh, and even then it took Yamada working a walk out of an eight-pitch at-bat.

“I don’t feel like he was better than usual, but his control was amazing,” said the Swallows’ Shingo Kawabata.

Sugano struck out seven in the victory.

“I don’t really feel like he was different than usual,” Yamada said. “I think he’s a strong, good pitcher. Sugano was good, but I also think Kobayashi’s lead was a little different.”

Giants manager Yoshinobu Takahashi met the media afterward with a bemused look on his face.

“There really aren’t words to say,” he said of Sugano’s performance.

While the Swallows struggled at the plate, Yomiuri backed Sugano with solo home runs from Hisayoshi Chono and McGehee and a two-run shot from Yoshiyuki Kamei.

With Takahashi having already announced his intention to step down after the season, the first-stage victory extended his stay in the dugout for at least a few games.

If Yomiuri wants to keep him around even longer, they’ll have to knock off a Carp team that won the league by seven games.

The Carp are loaded with weapons and led the CL with 721 runs scored (Yakult was second with 658). Their lineup features a pair of MVP candidates in Yoshihiro Maru, who hit .306 with 39 homers during the regular season, and Seiya Suzuki, who ended the year hitting .320 with 30 homers.

The surging Giants enter the series undeterred by the odds.

“We’re the challengers, so we definitely want to do our best so we can play under manager Takahashi for as long as possible,” Sugano said.