CHIBA – The Seibu Lions lost their best pitcher and one of their best hitters off last year’s Pacific League title winner.
As for the PL pennant, they’re going to hold on to that a little while longer.
The Seibu batters roared at the plate as usual, Zach Neal had another solid game on the mound, and the Lions got the win they needed in Chiba — by a 12-4 margin — and the loss by the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks they needed in Sendai to clinch their second straight PL title on Tuesday night.
“I can’t even believe it really,” Neal said. “It’s kind of a surreal feeling. At one point in the season, we were maybe last in the division. To come back and fight the way that we did just shows a lot about our team and our guys.
“Lot of character guys in that locker room. I think that showed down the home stretch. It was a lot of fun. It’s a good team to be on.”
Seibu entered the game with a magic number of two, needing to beat the Marines and for the Hawks to fall to the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles to secure the pennant.
The former happened in the middle of the eighth in Chiba, with the Lions fans around a sold-out Zozo Marine Stadium letting out a loud roar when the result in Sendai was final. Seibu was leading 12-3 at that point.
“At the beginning of the year, we were facing the big challenge of trying to repeat,” Lions manager Hatsuhiko Tsuji said. “It got really difficult around the middle of the year, but we were really surprised by the players’ intensity from the summer on. I think this is the result of them giving it their best.”
Tatsushi Masuda ended the PL pennant race by striking out Leonys Martin and the Lions raced to the mound to celebrate after the final out. When Tsuji joined them, they flung him into the air 10 times during the doage.
“He’s definitely a player’s manager,” reliever Deunte Heath said. “The guys just play hard for him and play for the team.”
Shogo Akiyama drove in five runs and Hotaka Yamakawa took sole possession of first place in NPB with his 43rd home run, a two-run shot. Takumi Kuriyama, Yuji Kaneko and Sosuke Genda drove in a run each.
Neal did his part on the mound, pitching six innings and allowing three runs — one earned — in the clincher. The American ended his first regular season in Japan by winning his 11th straight decision.
“I haven’t really had time to sit down and think about it,” Neal said of his winning streak. “I just try to move it week by week and take it day by day. The wins kept adding up and it’s a special thing. In my first year, for that to happen, it’s a special feeling.”
Neal finished 12-1 overall with a 2.87 ERA.
The South Carolina native has been at the center of the resurgence by the Lions’ much-maligned pitching staff, which helped pushed the team past SoftBank and across the finish line over the past few weeks.
Seibu did it this year without ace Yusei Kikuchi, who left to join the Seattle Mariners, and star batter Hideto Asamura, who signed with Rakuten.
Lotte had been looking to stay alive in the race for third place in the PL, but was eliminated with the loss.
Starter Kota Futaki had a rough night on the mound, allowing five runs before being replaced with two outs in the second inning in the losing effort
Yudai Fujioka drove in two runs for the home team. Brandon Laird and Shogo Nakamura accounted for the other two.
Because of the makeup games still being played around the league, Lotte is the first team to complete its schedule. The Marines finished 69-70-4 and in fourth place.
The Lions have one more regular-season game to play before hosting the final stage of the Climax Series, which begins Oct. 9.
They’ll face either the Hawks or Eagles, who will finish second and third, in that series.
The long layoff the team will have doesn’t concern Neal.
“I think we need a little bit of a breather honestly” he said. “It’s been a tough month for everybody. I think a nice little break is something everybody is going to be a little bit excited about. I’m not too worried about that.”
The Lions lost in the final stage a year ago. So while they’re happy with another pennant, they’re not eager for a repeat of that.
“We’ve been able to make this far,” Tsuji said. “We want to go one further, so we’ll do our best to win and be able to reach the Japan Series.”
Eagles rally past Hawks
Zelous Wheeler’s two run blast in the sixth at Rakuten Seimei Park Miyagi overturned the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks’ 1-0 lead taken on Alfredo Despaigne’s fourth-inning solo shot.
It was Despaigne’s 36th homer of the season, a career high over six seasons in Japan, topping the 35 he hit in 2017 when he led the league in home runs.
A late RBI from Hideto Asamura kept the Eagles ahead, securing the club a third-place result and a spot in the Climax Series for the first time in two years.
Fighters 3, Buffaloes 1
At Osaka’s Kyocera Dome, Chihiro Kaneko (8-7) threw five scoreless innings, while Kotaro Kiyomiya drew a bases-loaded walk and hit his first triple of the season in a three-RBI effort to help lead Nippon Ham.
BayStars 7, Dragons 1
At Nagoya Dome, Yokohama batted around against Enny Romero (8-10) in a four-run first and held on for the victory to clinch second place and a spot in the playoffs.
Tigers 5, Giants 0
At Nishinomiya’s Koshien Stadium, an early run gave Hanshin the lead before homers from Ryutaro Umeno and Kosuke Fukudome helped secure a win over Yomiuri.