Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

Central League set up for exciting race to finish line

by Jason Coskrey

Things looked so simple in the Central League at the All-Star break.

The Yomiuri Giants were in first place when the second half started on July 15, with the closest object to them in the rearview mirror 9½ games back.

But, as they say, life comes at you fast.

Whatever semblance of control manager Tatsunori Hara’s team had in mid-July is in shambles. What began as a few post All-Star slipups by the Giants has turned into a free fall, and the Yokohama BayStars and Hiroshima Carp have cut away the safety net.

“We’re still in first place,” Hara told reporters on Sunday night. “But it’s a little strange.”

A 9½-game lead is now just a half-game. Which, while not optimal for Giants fans, should make everyone else pretty happy, because this thing could get really good down the stretch.

The Giants, BayStars and Carp enter the week separated by less than two games. The suddenly slumping Giants are (barely) still in first place with the BayStars a half-game back, after a weekend sweep of the Giants, and Hiroshima another game further out.

“When you look back at where we were a couple of months ago and you look now, half a game, it’s unbelievable,” BayStars manager Alex Ramirez said after Sunday night’s win. “The team has been putting everything together and that’s the reason we’re here today.”

The Giants lorded over the first half of the season. On July 9, Yomiuri was the only team in the CL with a winning record. The wins have been harder to come by lately. Since July 15, the Kyojin are 5-13 overall and 1-8 against the BayStars and Carp. The team is also currently in the midst of its first five-game losing streak of the year.

Meanwhile, Ramirez has guided his BayStars on a 14-4-1 run since the break.

“Of course I’m happy, but the bottom line is we’re still behind,” he said. “We’ve just gotta continue taking it day-by-day.”

The BayStars have gotten enough pitching to stay in and win games lately. Yokohama starters Shota Imanaga, Hatsuhiro Hamaguchi, Taiga Kamichatani and Kentaro Taira are a combined 8-1 with a 1.82 ERA over 74⅓ innings since the All-Star break. That quartet has delivered eight quality starts in 12 games. The Yokohama bullpen has picked up the slack when needed and the staff as a whole has a 3.02 ERA in its last 173 innings.

The Carp are 14-4 since the break.

They’ve been the streakiest team in Japan — Hiroshima is the only club with both a double-digit winning and losing streak this season — and are clearly on the uptick right now.

The Carp have done it on the mound and at the plate.

Pitcher Kris Johnson has allowed just two runs in his last 21 innings and none in his last 17. Slugger Xavier Batista has been knocking the cover off the ball and has seven homers since the break, while Ryoma Nishikawa has five.

Hiroshima has won its last five series and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.

The race is on now and anything can happen between here and October.

The first act will come on Tuesday night, when the Carp and BayStars begin a three-game series at Mazda Stadium. The Giants will be busy trying to put the pieces back together against the Chunichi Dragons in Nagoya.

“It’s not going to be any easier from next week,” Ramirez said. “We’re facing Hiroshima and they’re very hot right now. We just gotta stay focused.”

There’s been a lot happening the last few weeks, but now that everyone is bunched up at the top, the real fun can start.

“The fight is still ongoing,” Hara told Nikkan Sports after Sunday’s loss. “The Giants are going to give it our best in the games from here on out.”

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5