The Seibu Lions are still pretty much unbeatable when Zach Neal is on the rubber.
The Lions' opening day starter took the mound on Friday against the Chiba Lotte Marines and — spoiler alert — Seibu won.
Neal may not have factored into the decision, but he kept his team in the game, allowing two runs over six innings for his 14th quality start in 23 games, including last season.
On Friday, the Seibu bullpen held up after Neal departed and Shuta Tonosaki struck the decisive blow with the first sayonara hit of his career.
"I wanted to continue the legend of being unbeatable in games that Neal throws," Lions manager Hatsuhiko Tsuji said.
It's more fact than legend at this point. Seibu is 18-0-1 in Neal's last 19 regular-season starts and 19-2-2 in his NPB career.
Neal himself is 2-0 in six starts this season and was 12-1 in 17 last year. He's currently riding a 13-decision win streak, one fewer than the foreign-pitcher record of 14, held jointly by Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks pitcher Rick van Den Hurk and former Giants righty Miles Mikolas.
The NPB record is 28, by former Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles ace Masahiro Tanaka.
Neal has done it by being among the best in NPB at keeping the ball down and limiting damage — he's only yielded four or more runs three times in Japan. He also has a monster lineup behind him on the days things don't go so well.
Friday's win was one of four in a six-game series against the Chiba Lotte Marines last week, which were the first games in front of fans at MetLife Dome in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture.
"We had been waiting to play a game in front of the fans again," Takumi Kuriyama said Sunday.
Kuriyama played a big role in a 4-2 win in the finale, going 3-for-3 with pair of RBIs. He also picked up his 350th career double. The 36-year-old is batting .323 with three homers and 21 RBIs in 30 games.
While the Lions weren't particularly dominant at the plate last week, they got some decent pitching performances.
In addition to Neal, Kona Takahashi tossed seven innings of two-run ball on Wednesday and Kaito Yozo put together a nice night to get his first career win on Thursday.
In the bullpen, if you exclude the four runs Tetsu Miyagawa allowed in one-third of a frame on Saturday, the Lions got 19⅔ innings of scoreless relief.
Seibu also had another reliever join the 160-kph club. Reed Garret hit the mark, throwing fastest pitch in MetLife Dome history, on Sunday to become the 15th NPB pitcher to hit 160 on the gun. He did it one week after teammate Kaima Taira did the same.
In all, it was solid week of work for Seibu, which can carry some momentum into a showdown with the first-place Hawks in Fukuoka next week.
Elsewhere around the league, the Orix Buffaloes stampeded past the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles with four wins — and a tie — in six games.
Masataka Yoshida was on top of his game at the plate, powering Orix with 10 hits, including two homers, and four RBIs. He also drew 10 walks.
Perhaps more noteworthy was the performance of the Orix relievers, a group that was suspect, at best, at times last season. Against the Eagles, the Buffaloes bullpen allowed four runs — two earned — in 16⅓ innings.
The other PL series saw the Hawks and Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters alternate wins.
In the Central League, the Yokohama BayStars had a disappointing end to a week in which they were 3-2-1.
Yokohama started off with a loss and a tie against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in the Central League. The BayStars then reeled off three straight, taking the finale against Yakult and the first two games against the Hiroshima Carp.
Then came the fall on Sunday.
The BayStars took a 6-0 lead into the eighth inning and proceeded to allow 10 runs over the next two frames to lose 10-6.
"We lost with the two guys we trust the most, so it can't be helped," manager Alex Ramirez was quoted as saying by Nikkan Sports in reference to relievers Spencer Patton and Yasuaki Yamasaki, who were charged with seven runs. "That's baseball."
The Hanshin Tigers continued their turnaround from a poor start with three wins and a tie last week.
Yusuke Oyama stayed hot in the No. 4 hole, with four home runs and seven RBIs in six games. He also racked up eight hits.
At the top of the CL, the first-place Giants were 3-2-1, including a 1-1-1 series against the second-place Swallows. Yakult also posted a win, loss and tie in its series with the BayStars.
The Carp were 2-3-1 while the Chunichi Dragons finished the week 2-4.
Welcome back: Shintaro Fujinami.
The Hanshin pitcher, whose struggles have been well-documented the past few years, made his first start for the top team since 2018 on Wednesday against the Carp.
Fujinami ended up on the losing side of the decision after giving up a grand slam to Jose Pirela in the sixth. He allowed those four runs struck out five and walked six.
Prior to the season the 26-year-old was one of NPB's first known COVID-19 cases.
Run until you get home: Yuma Mune.
The Buffaloes player broke a ninth-inning tie in dramatic fashion on Saturday in Sendai. After connecting on a 148-kph pitch, Mune took advantage of Rakuten's Jabari Blash crashing into the wall in right field and legged out an inside-the-park home run.
Inside-the-parkers are infrequent in Japan, with Mune's the first in NPB since the Hawks Seiji Uebayashi did it against the Fighters, also in the ninth inning, on June 29, 2019. There have only been eight in NPB since 2016.
For the franchise, it's the first since Tatsuya Shindo hit one for the Orix BlueWave in 2002.
It was a good week for: Keita Sano
Yokohama's captain finished with a hit in five of the six games he played and drove in eight runs. He also in three straight games from July 22 to 24, with the last one a sayonara grand slam.
He did it all during the same week Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, the previous Yokohama captain, made his MLB debut and hit his first home run.
"I think that's what everybody was expecting," BayStars manager Alex Ramirez said Friday. "He did a tremendous job, I mean three days, consecutively, hitting home runs, that's awesome. I'm very happy for him."
It was a bad week for: Yasuaki Yamasaki
The BayStars closer only had one bad outing this week, but it was a doozy.
Yamasaki took the mound with a one-run lead in the ninth against the Carp on Sunday and proceeded to allow five runs — four on a Tsubasa Aizawa grand slam — in a 10-6 loss.
Yamasaki has struggled this year and has allowed 11 runs in 11 1/3 innings.
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