A few hours after the United States national baseball team qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, two players expected to be key members of Samurai Japan's Olympic effort returned to the field in NPB.
Yomiuri Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano and Hiroshima Carp outfielder Seiya Suzuki might have been a little rusty on Sunday, but there's time for both to round back into top form for both the pennant race and the Tokyo Games.
Sugano is one of the top hurlers in Japan but hasn't pitched on the top team since being taken off the roster on May 8 because of elbow discomfort.
He made his return in a losing effort against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters on Sunday at Tokyo Dome. Sugano, who threw 90 pitches, allowed a pair of runs on three hits over five innings. The right-hander struck out six.
"He threw the number of pitches we had planned for," Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said.
Suzuki, meanwhile, was part of a COVID-19 cluster within the Carp team and removed from the roster on May 21. He was 0-for-5 with a strikeout on Sunday in a loss against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
Suzuki is one of Japan's top all-around hitters and — like Sugano — is a former Central League MVP. He's expected to be a key part of Japan manager Atsunori Inaba's lineup during the Olympics.
Sugano and Suzuki might need a few days to shake off the rust, but their returns likely put fans' minds at ease with the Olympics drawing near.
Elsewhere around NPB, the CL's last-place team is now tied for first place in the interleague standings.
The DeNA BayStars got off to a rocky start this year but have put together a nice run against Pacific League teams the past two weeks. The team went 4-1-1 last week to improve to 7-3-2 in interleague play. That pulled the BayStars into a tie with the Chunichi Dragons atop the standings.
DeNA won in dramatic fashion on Sunday against the Chiba Lotte Marines. With the club down to its final out — there are no extra innings in NPB this year — veteran Yamato Maeda connected on a sayonara double to give his team a 4-3 victory.
Tyler Austin helped power the club's strong week. Austin was 7-for-22 in the team's six games and slugged three home runs. The American drove in seven runs last week. Maeda also finished with seven RBIs.
The BayStars lead NPB with 21 interleague home runs and trail only the Orix Buffaloes with 66 runs scored.
Chunichi, meanwhile, is doing it with pitching. The Dragons — 3-2-1 last week — have scored the fewest runs during interleague play but have also allowed the fewest. Chunichi has a 2.94 team ERA, making it the only club below 3.00. The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks are next at 3.23.
Dragons pitcher Yuya Yanagi has led the way with 16 scoreless innings over two interleague starts. He began last week with a one-hitter against the Marines on June 1, striking out eight and walking just one.
What little offense the team got last week mostly came from Nobumasa Fukuda, who drove in four runs, and Dayan Viciedo, who drove in three.
The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles won five of six games last week and sit a half-game behind the two CL clubs in the standings at 7-4-1. The Buffaloes, who were 4-2 last week, are another half-game back at 7-5.
The CL currently has a slim lead over the PL overall with a 32-30-7 record. The PL has finished with the most wins in all but one season since interleague was introduced in 2005.
Working hard or hardly working
Marines reliever Naoya Masuda had an easy day at the office on Friday, needing just one pitch to record a save against the Dragons.
Masuda is the 62nd NPB pitcher to record a save with just one pitch. The right-hander also has a one-pitch win — against the Lions in 2014 — and became just the fourth pitcher, and first PL hurler, to have done both.
Time for a trim
Lions starter Kona Takahashi said prior to the season he would not cut his hair until he lost a game. Takahashi then went 5-0 over his first 10 starts as his hair continued to grow.
He's free to schedule a visit to the barber now. Takahashi suffered his first loss of the season on Friday, and it came in one of the worst outings of his career.
The Lions pitcher was tagged for 10 runs — nine earned — over three innings in a loss against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.
None shall pass
Lions reliever Kaima Taira had a better week than Takahashi. He appeared in three games and threw three scoreless innings while also recording a save.
The right-hander from Okinawa Prefecture has made 29 straight appearances without allowing a run since opening day, a PL record. He's two away from the NPB record of 31, set by the Dragons' Shinji Tajima in 2016.
Taira has 21 holds, four saves, a win and 40 strikeouts in 28⅔ scoreless innings.
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