Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

Giants beginning to hit stride ahead of All-Star break

by Jason Coskrey

Following a spring training game against the Seattle Mariners in March, Yomiuri Giants manager Tastunori Hara mused that the MLB club’s lineup looked similar to his own.

Hara was specifically referencing the Mariners using one of their best hitters, Mitch Haniger, in the No. 2 spot, which is where he had deployed his own star, Hayato Sakamoto.

Hara seemed pleased with himself over the comparison, even though he’d later move Sakamoto up and down in the order during the early part of the NPB season. Sakamoto, though, has been rooted at No. 2 recently while the Giants have been solidly planted at the top of the Central League.

While the Mariners went on to start hot and then fade in MLB, the Kyojin are starting to really hit their stride in Japan.

The club is assured of going into the All-Star break on Thursday in first place and took a 6½-game lead into Monday night’s games. If that wasn’t enough, the Hiroshima Carp, the three-time defending league champs and thorns in Yomiuri’s side, have been playing like fish out of water and had fallen to fourth place by Monday.

Yomiuri entered this season having not tasted a league title since 2014 and determined to win again under Hara, who returned to the helm after Yoshinobu Takahashi stepped down at the end of 2018.

This year’s Giants are more balanced, with the hitters really pulling their share of the load — the team began Monday leading the CL in runs scored by 28.

Some of that is due to Yoshihiro Maru, who the Giants signed away from the Carp in free agency. With Maru, the winner of the past two CL MVP awards, hitting in the three-hole behind Sakamoto, the Giants have found a key to help rev up their engine.

Entering Monday, Sakamoto was hitting .309, tied for the league lead with 25 homers and had an on-base plus slugging percentage of .973. Maru was hitting .315 with 15 homers and a .946 OPS.

Sakamoto has been particularly hot as of late. After slumping during interleague, hitting .183 (65th out of 70 qualified players) with two homers in 18 games, he entered Monday having gone 12-for-30 with four homers in eight games back in CL action.

The rest of the team has coalesced around the dynamic duo, with Yoshiyuki Kamei helping set the tone in the leadoff spot lately.

Yomiuri has even found some unexpected help from second-year infielder Akihiro Wakabayashi, who has put the clamps on what was, shall we say a fluid situation, at second base.

Ace pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano hasn’t quite been himself in every game, but Shun Yamaguchi has more than picked up the slack. Yamaguchi is 9-2 with a 2.01 ERA and hasn’t lost since dropping consecutive starts on May 12 and 19.

The Giants are entering the break at one of their highest points and things could get better when Scott Mathieson is back at peak condition to help out in the bullpen and especially if Yomiuri can solidify the back of its starting rotation.

The club has also been winning despite a slow start by new slugger Christian Villanueva, who was batting just .222 with eight homers in his first 55 games.

It’s a long season, of course, and there are a lot of things still to be written. The Giants could very easily come down with whatever the Carp have and slide down into the abyss while some other team takes the lead, because baseball is funny like that.

Right now, though, Yomiuri is on top of the pile and certainly having a better go of it than Seattle is in North America. For the team’s pennant-starved fan base, at least right now, that means all’s right with the world with the Giants seemingly up and running again.

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