What a week it was for the Chiba Lotte Marines.
Technically, things got started Oct. 4, when pitcher Daiki Iwashita and a staff member tested positive for COVID-19.
Subsequent testing early last week revealed 11 more infections (a total that included seven top-team players), the club announced Oct. 6.
Despite nearly a dozen new positives, the Marines still had a game to play that night. So Lotte ended up taking 11 players (the positives plus four deemed to have been in close contact) off the top-team roster and called up players from the farm. That left the ni-gun squad depleted, leading to the cancellation of six games.
Oh, and all this went down in the latter stages of a tight pennant race in the Pacific League.
The Marines who were left, including a leadoff batter making his pro debut, began their week against the Orix Buffaloes and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, one of NPB’s best pitchers. Yamamoto threw eight shutout innings in an Orix win.
Three days later, the Marines were in first place in the PL, though they’ve since lost that spot.
Such is life in this weird season, which was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic from the start and has seen two outbreaks (the Hanshin Tigers had the other) in less than a month.
The year looks set to have a PL pennant race that goes down to the wire, with the Marines and first-place Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks separated by two games.
Not so in the Central League, where the Yomiuri Giants’ 13-game lead over the Hanshin Tigers is a wider gap than the 10½-games between the Hawks and the fifth-place Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the Pa. League.
The Marines are trying to win their first pennant since 2005, though the club did win a Japan Series in 2010.
Manager Tadahito Iguchi has had to use a plug-and-play approach with young players in some spots, with players like Takashi Ogino, Katsuya Kakunaka and Yudai Fujioka off of his roster after testing positive for COVID-19.
On Oct. 7, Iguchi put Kyota Fujiwara (the club’s prized 2018 draft pick) in the one-hole and watched him get his first career hit, albeit on a 1-for-5 day.
Fujiwara was back in the leadoff spot for a showdown with SoftBank on Friday. The young outfielder responded with a 3-for-5 night and even swiped his first base, sliding into second ahead of the throw from Hawks catcher Takuya Kai — whose powerful arm has been dubbed the “Kai Cannon.” He was 1-for-3 with an RBI on Saturday, but was hitless Sunday.
The Marines, who split two games against the Buffaloes (and have a rainout to make up) were 1-2 against the three-time defending Japan Series champions.
Lotte should still have a considerable amount of confidence overall, with a 28-14-1 record in the teams’ last 43 meetings dating to 2019. They play six more times this season.
The Hawks, trying for their first pennant since 2017, were 0-2-1 against the Seibu Lions before meeting the Marines.
“We’ve still got games left,” Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo was quoted as saying by Sports Nippon. “Each game is going to be important.”
Speaking of the Lions, the two-time defending league champs went 3-1-1 last week, putting more pressure on the third-place Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
While the Hawks and Marines were dueling in Fukuoka, the Lions and Eagles split a series in Sendai that had the middle game washed away by rain.
Rakuten, which was 2-2-1 last week, has a 1½-game lead over Seibu.
At the bottom of the league, the Fighters were 2-3-1 while the last-place Buffaloes finished up 3-2.
In the Central League, the race for third-place between the Chunichi Dragons and Yokohama BayStars remained tight.
The Dragons played four games last week, starting with two wins over the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. In the second game of that series, Dragons ace Yudai Ono earned his first victory without having to throw a complete game, improving to 8-5 with six innings of one-run ball.
Chunichi then split a two-game set with Yomiuri.
Yokohama faced the Giants and second-place Hanshin Tigers and came away 2-3 last week.
Neftali Soto hit a pair of homers in a win over Hanshin on Saturday and currently has 21 on the year. The two-time reigning home run champ is four behind Yomiuri’s Kazuma Okamoto and Hanshin’s Yusuke Oyama, who lead the league.
The BayStars are in the third spot heading into this week.
At the the top of the standings, the Giants went 3-3 and lowered their magic number to 12. Hanshin was 3-2-1 and sits two games ahead of Chunichi.
At the bottom, the Hiroshima Carp were 3-2-1 and the Swallows finished up 1-4.
Call it a career: Ryota Igarashi
The Swallows veteran will be retiring at the end of the season, closing the book on a long career.
Igarashi made his debut for the Swallows in 1999, pitched in MLB for the New York Mets, Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees from 2010-2012 and with the Hawks from 2013-2018 before returning to Yakult last season.
Igarashi, a six-time All-Star, led the CL in saves in 2004 (37) and was part of four Japan Series winners.
The 41-year-old, who has yet to make an appearance this year, has 70 saves and 163 holds in Japan.
Can’t go home against: Yoshinobu Yamamoto
The Buffaloes ace turned in another good performance on Tuesday, striking out nine over eight shutout frames against the Marines.
Runs are becoming hard to come by against the 22-year-old right-hander. Including his start against Lotte, Yamamoto is currently on a career-high streak of 29 consecutive scoreless innings.
Keep it 100: Tomoyuki Sugano
The already highly decorated Giants pitcher added a couple more things to his resume on Oct. 6 at Tokyo Dome.
With a victory over the BayStars that night, Sugano earned the 100th victory of his career. The Yomiuri ace is 100-47 in 192 career starts. Sugano also improved to 13-0 this year, which gives him the NPB record for consecutive victories to start a season by an opening-day pitcher.
There was also a happy 100 for Hawks closer Yuito Mori, who reached triple digits with a save against Lotte on Sunday.
Mori is also the sixth player in NPB history with 100 saves and 100 holds.
It was a good week for: Tyler Austin
Austin had at least one hit in all five of the BayStars’ games, connected on four home runs and had seven RBIs.
In a season that has been interrupted by injuries, Austin has 17 home runs in 45 games.
It was a bad week for: Shogo Nakamura
The Lotte infielder picked a bad time to slump, with the team missing a number of players.
In five games last week, Nakamura was just 2-for-15 at the plate.