The Yomiuri Giants hadn’t played a game that really counted for anything since clinching the Central League pennant on Sept. 21. They hadn’t played any official games at all since Sept. 28.
When they finally did get back on the diamond, it didn’t take long for the Kyojin to get back into the swing of things.
Yoshihiro Maru and Kazuma Okamoto hit back-to-back home runs in the first inning and Shun Yamaguchi pitched into the eighth as the Giants beat the Hanshin Tigers 5-2 in Game 1 of the Central League Climax Series Final Stage in front of a crowd of 45,177 on Wednesday night at Tokyo Dome.
Because the Giants began the final stage with a 1-0 advantage as the pennant winners, they now lead the series 2-0.
“We weren’t thinking about the advantage,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said. “We’re going into tomorrow’s game with the momentum from taking Game 1.”
Game 2 is Friday night at the Big Egg. Christopher Mercedes will get the start for the Giants against the Tigers’ Haruto Takahashi.
Maru hit eight of his 27 home runs this year against Hanshin. He put another on the board against Atsushi Mochizuki in the bottom of the first, taking a 3-2 fastball that was left up in the zone and sending it over the wall in left-center.
“I thought drawing a walk would be OK,” Maru said. “I was just thinking that I wanted to get on base. As for the result I was able to hit it really well. I was surprised but happy it was a home run.”
Maru came to the plate with two outs in the inning and said he just wanted to keep the frame going to give Okamoto a chance.
When Okamoto got his turn, he connected on a forkball and sent it flying into the stands in left field to give the Giants a quick 2-0 advantage.
“It’s not easy to hit right after someone hits a home run, so I’m glad I could hit a homer,” Okamoto said.
After going 1-for-20 in the first and final stages of last year’s Climax Series, Okamoto was 2-for-4 on Thursday night.
“Since I had one hit last year and two in one game tonight, it’s a career high,” he said.
Yoshiyuki Kamei hit an RBI double in the second and Hayato Sakamoto, the next batter, hit a two-run single to make it 5-0.
Yamaguchi, who led the CL with 15 wins and 188 strikeouts this season, also picked up right where he left off. The Yomiuri starter, went 7 1/3 innings, allowing one run on four hits. He struck out seven and walked three.
“Instead of thinking about going deep into the game, I just threw with the feeling of taking it one batter at a time,” Yamaguchi said.
He didn’t allow a baserunner until Kosuke Fukudome singled with two-outs in the fourth. That led to his only rough patch of the night, as he then gave up a single to Jefry Marte, walked Kento Itohara and allowed run on a wild pitch.
The Tigers, who rallied from six runs back to beat the Yokohama BayStars in Game 1 of the first stage, made the Giants sweat in the ninth.
Itohara and Shun Takayama hit one-out singles against Giants closer Rubby De La Rosa to get the Tigers going. Ryutaro Umeno drew a two-out walk later in the inning to load the bases. Fumiya Hojo then drew a walk to make the score 5-2.
Yomiuri lefty Kazuto Taguchi came on to relieve De la Rosa and recorded the final out to earn the save.
Mochizuki only lasted two innings, taking the loss after allowing five runs.
The Hanshin batters were limited to six singles with Takayama having the best night with a pair of hits and a walk.
With the victory, Yomiuri is two wins away from reaching the Japan Series for the first time since 2013.
“Let’s finish it quickly in two games and go to the Japan Series,” Okamoto yelled to the crowd after the contest.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5