It's been a long time since there were Chunichi Dragons games worth getting excited about this late in a season.
Here we are though, with every Central League team with fewer than 31 games left to play and Chunichi sitting fourth in the standings — prime position for a run at an A-Class finish.
The Dragons had moved into third place with a 9-7 win over the Yokohama BayStars on Saturday. The BayStars, however, returned the favor with a 9-3 victory on Sunday that put them back in the third spot, a half-game ahead of Chunichi.
The Dragons finished 3-3 last week, with one win over the second-place Hanshin Tigers and two against Yokohama.
Chunichi's flirtation with a spot in the top three is the only meat left on the bone in the CL standings. The Yomiuri Giants are running away with the pennant and, with no playoffs this year due to the COVID-19 fallout, there's not really anything else up for grabs.
But don't tell Dragons fans.
Chunichi has had it rough since a second-place finish in 2012. Since then, the club has had two fourth-place finishes, four fifth-place finishes and one year where it was dead last. It's best winning percentage in that stretch was .482 under first-year manager Tsuyoshi Yoda last season.
Yoda still has the team going in the right direction in his second year in charge. The Dragons are improving, and doing it this year without being singularly spectacular in any area outside of ace Yudai Ono, who has built a case for the Sawamura Award on the foundation of an NPB-best eight complete games — no one else has more than three.
The Dragons left-hander, who is 7-5, also has a 2.18 ERA and 0.83 walks plus hits per innings pitched in 111 2/3 innings. He's leading the CL with 115 strikeouts and is second only to the Orix Buffaloes' Yoshinobu Yamamoto (123) overall.
Overall, though, Chunchi is last in the CL with 330 runs scored (the next closest total is 378) and has allowed 384 runs, third-most in the league.
Looking ahead, the Dragons' schedule sets up somewhat favorably for a run at an A-Class finish.
Chunichi only has three games (at home) remaining against the first-place Yomiuri Giants and six against the last-place Tokyo Yakult Swallows, a team Chunichi is 11-5-2 against this year. Although the club also has a run of nine-game in nine days coming up.
The Dragons also face the BayStars, their most direct rival for third place right now, six more times, with all six games at Nagoya Dome. The clubs have split their 18 meetings this year.
Overall, 18 of the Dragons' 28 remaining contests are home games.
Elsewhere around the CL, the Giants moved closer to their coronation. Yomiuri was 4-2 last week and whittled its magic number down to 17. The Kyojin have been utterly dominant this year, evidenced by a plus-125 run differential prior to Monday's game.
The second-place Hanshin Tigers put a little more distance between themselves and the BayStars and Dragons with two wins against Chunichi at the start of last week, but faded at the end with two losses against the Giants.
The third-place BayStars briefly fell out of the A-Class during a four-game losing streak last week. The team bounced back on Sunday, muscling the Dragons out of third place behind three homers from Tyler Austin in Sunday's win. Yokohama was 2-5 last week.
At the bottom of the standings, the fifth-place Carp were 5-2, while the Swallows finished 2-4.
The Pacific League pennant race is still tight, with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks holding a two-game lead over the second-place Chiba Lotte Marines.
SoftBank stumbled to an 11-13-2 mark in September, but has won its first four games this month.
A home run by Yuki Yanagita on Saturday against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters was also a welcome sight. Yanagita, an MVP candidate batting .341 with 25 home runs, hadn't gone deep since Sept. 18 before his shot against Nippon Ham.
In second place, the Marines were 4-2 last week. Lotte is still right in the thick of the pennant race and hopes it has bolstered its chances with the recent addition of pitcher Chen Wei-yin.
Hideto Asamura broke out of a slump for the third-place Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles on Saturday against the Orix Buffaloes, going 3-for-4 and hitting his 29th homer of the season.
The Eagles lost on Sunday to break even in their six games last week.
Asamura and Raktuen are trying to make a push for the postseason in the final weeks of the season. The club recently moved to fortify its relief corps by switching Yuki Matsui back into the bullpen after a stint as a starter.
Unlike the CL, the Pa League will stage a two-team Climax Series to determine its Japan Series representative. The Eagles are currently 5 1/2 games behind the Marines.
In the B-Class, the fourth place Seibu Lions were 2-4 last week, the Fighters were 1-5 and the Buffaloes won three of six.
Keep streaking: Masanori Ishikawa
The Swallows veteran had to wait a while but finally got his first win of the season, in his 10th start of the year, on Sept. 29 against the BayStars. He did just enough to give himself a chance, allowing a pair of runs over 5 2/3 innings.
The Yakult lefty now has at least one win in 19 consecutive NPB seasons. Ishikawa has 172 victories overall.
Finish the job: Yudai Ono
Chunichi's ace pitcher kept his remarkable run of complete games going with a shutout against the Tigers on Sept. 29 night.
Ono struck out nine in a 107-pitch shutout in which he only allowed a pair of singles. He’s thrown a complete game in all seven of his victories this season and in eight of his last nine starts, a run that includes four shutouts. He also helped his own cause in last week’s games with a triple, the first of his career, that drove in two runs in the fifth.
Powerful start: Munetaka Murakami
The 20-year-old Yakult slugger hit his 20th homer of the year on Sunday. Murakami had 36 homers last year and is the first NPB player since Hideki Matusi with two 20-homer seasons in his first three years out of high school.
It was a good week for: Hideaki Wakui.
Wakui allowed two runs over eight innings against the Hawks on Wednesday to improve to 10-3, with a 3.06 ERA this season.
The victory made Wakui, in his first year with Rakuten, the first player to have a 10-win season with three different Pa League clubs. Wakui previously reached double digits with the Lions, his first team, and the Marines.
It was a bad week for: Yakult pitching.
Technically it was just one day, but there were enough runs to last an entire week.
On Saturday afternoon, Swallows pitchers allowed 17 runs in a farm team game against the BayStars. That same night, the top team hurlers were tagged for 13 in a game against the Carp.
Across the organization, Yakult allowed 30 runs in one day, while only scoring two themselves.
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