Kai Ueda didn’t have much time to get ready for what might’ve been the biggest moment of his career. Edwin Escobar had just located a 153-kph fastball into Shun Takayama’s hip and someone needed to run the bases during the top of the eighth inning in Game 3 of the Central League Climax Series First Stage on Monday.
So Ueda suddenly became the next man up, and he played his role perfectly.
The Hanshin Tigers pinch runner stole second on Escobar’s first pitch to Ryutaro Umeno, went to third on a wild pitch and then scored the run that would send the Tigers to the final stage of the CLCS on a sacrifice fly.
“We got that run because of his legs,” Hanshin manager Akihiro Yano said. “Of course Ryu also had the sacrifice fly. It’s just amazing.”
The Tigers won the decisive third game 2-1 on Monday and won the series 2-1. It’s unlikely anyone outside of Hanshin diehards, and probably not many of them, had Ueda pegged as the player who would make the pivotal play.
Ueda, however, is exactly the type of player who makes the difference on this Tigers team. So is Umeno, who hit the sac fly, and Takayama, who scored the game’s first run on a wild pitch in the sixth, and 39-year-old veteran reliever Kyuji Fujikawa, who got the final six outs.
For three games, the Tigers heaped praise on each other, as if the sheer their force of their belief would ignite the next man up. They played as one and, more importantly, won as one.
“The players on the bench, those who didn’t start, gave us a lot of support,” Umeno said. “They really helped create a good atmosphere.”
In the final two innings on Monday, the collective sum of all the Tigers’ faith and belief in the team was directed at Fujikawa, an aging former major leaguer who still has his forkball and also has some vintage performances left in his right arm.
With the rain that had blanketed the stadium for most of night suddenly falling harder, Fujikawa kept the BayStars off the scoreboard in the eighth and got through the heart of the order to close it out in the ninth.
“Of course I trusted Kyuji,” Yano said afterward. “There was no doubt.”
It was all-hands-on-deck baseball for Yano’s team, and there were plenty of heroes during the series.
Infielder Fumiya Hojo had four hits and drove in six runs during the first stage. In Game 1, he helped fuel a late rally with a three-run home run and later put Hanshin ahead with a two-run triple. Seiya Kinami had five hits and two RBIs during the series, while Hiroki Uemoto made the most of his chances with three hits and an RBI, in four at-bats.
Before his sacrifice fly in the eighth, Umeno, the Tigers catcher, blocked a ball to prevent a wild pitch with the bases loaded in the seventh. It was a poetic play in a way, seeing as both the Tigers’ runs in Game 3 were aided in some part by wild pitches.
Pitcher Rafael Dolis won two games in relief and threw 2 2/3 scoreless frames across the three games, while Fujikawa’s three innings earned him a pair of saves.
Yano also repeatedly praised the Hanshin reserves for being ready and supporting the players on the field.
They’ll need to have all hands on deck again in the final stage of the CLCS against the Yomiuri Giants, who won he season series 15-10 and start the final stage with an automatic 1-0 advantage.
But while the Giants have been practicing and waiting for an opponent, the Tigers have been surging together.
They’ve only lost once in their last nines games, including the regular season, and if nothing else, they’ll all show up ready to do their part.
“I feel like everyone is connected,” Yano said. “That makes me happy.”