Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.
That safety warning, or some version of it, appears on the passenger side mirrors of vehicles in several nations, including the United States.
It’s a warning the Hanshin Tigers should heed. They may still be driving at the front of the pack in the Central League, but the Yomiuri Giants — now just 2½ games back and gaining steam — are making a run.
It’s still before the All-Star and Olympic breaks and there is a ton of baseball to be played. The last week, though, was a reminder the Giants remain a clear and present threat to win a third straight pennant.
The Kyojin are hot. They beat the Tigers on June 19 and 20 and won all five games — two against the DeNA BayStars and a road series versus the Tokyo Yakult Swallows — they played last week to stretch their winning streak to seven.
Yomiuri’s starters had a good week without ace Tomoyuki Sugano, with none allowing more than two earned runs. The staff got a midseason boost with the return of Shun Yamaguchi, who had been pitching in North America since 2020.
“Our starters are leading the way and that’s been really important for us,” manager Tatsunori Hara said Sunday.
Yamaguchi made his return to the Giants with 5⅔ innings against the BayStars, his former club, on Wednesday. He allowed one run and struck out five.
“It’s been about two years since I’ve worn the Giants uniform,” Yamaguchi said. “I enjoyed pitching while receiving such a warm reception from everyone today.”
Yoshihiro Maru is not returning from being away, but the outfielder’s bat is back after slumping through May. Maru caught fire at the plate last week, finishing 8-for-18 with three home runs and eight RBIs in five games.
The veteran outfielder is batting .372 with four homers and 10 RBIs in 12 games this month after hitting .229 with three home runs and five RBIs over 22 games in May.
Yomiuri has a favorable matchup to begin this week, with the last-place Hiroshima Carp coming to Tokyo Dome for a three-game series that starts Tuesday.
The Tigers, meanwhile, left Nagoya with two wins against the Chunichi Dragons early last week, but were swept at home by the BayStars in a weekend series.
“The Giants are in good shape right now,” Tigers manager Akihiro Yano was quoted as saying by The Mainichi Shimbun on Sunday. “We can’t really afford to lose even when we’re not facing them.”
A leaky bullpen helped sink Hanshin in a loss to the Dragons on Wednesday, and a couple of defensive lapses behind pitcher Yuki Nishi contributed to Friday’s loss to the BayStars.
Rookie slugger Teruaki Sato also suddenly became unplugged in the middle of the week, going hitless in 15 straight at-bats at one point before a double in the ninth on Sunday.
Sato wasn’t the only one. The Tigers have looked great at the plate in 2021, but managed more than two runs just twice last week. Cleanup batter Yusuke Oyama was just 3-for-13 with no RBIs in the DeNA series.
Elsewhere around the CL, the third-place Swallows swept the Carp before being swept by the Giants. At the bottom half of the league, the Dragons were 2-3-1, the BayStars were 3-2 and the Carp finished 1-4-1.
In the Pacific League, the Orix Buffaloes cooled off a bit after entering last week on a roll. The Buffaloes started out with a win over the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and got two more against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters before hitting a snag.
The club’s 11-decision win streak was stopped on Thursday, when starter Hirotoshi Masui was tagged for five runs in five innings in a 5-2 loss to the Fighters. The Buffaloes then lost to the Seibu Lions and tied the next game of that series. They ended the week in style, however, pounding the Lions 10-0 at Kyocera Dome.
Orix, which had previously risen into first place for the first time since July 2014, ended the week in a tie with the Eagles atop the standings.
The Eagles lost their first two games last week before reeling off four straight wins, including a weekend sweep of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. Closer Yuki Matsui picked up three saves during the week to bring his total to a league-leading 21. Matsui is a candidate to replace the injured Kota Nakagawa on Japan’s Olympic team.
Elsewhere around the PL, the Hawks, currently in third place, were 2-3-1 last week, the Lions and Chiba Lotte Marines were both 2-2-1 and the Fighters lost four of their five games.
Things are tight in the Pa League, with the top five teams separated by just four games entering Monday.
In need of relief
Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo hinted that pitcher Shuta Ishikawa could be headed for a stint in the bullpen, according to Nikkan Sports on Friday.
Ishikawa finished tied for the Pacific League lead in wins in 2020, but is going through a tough stretch in 2021. Ishikawa has lost five of his last six starts, including on Friday, when he allowed four runs over five innings against the Eagles.
Lions veteran Takumi Kuriyama is nearing the home stretch in his quest to scale Mount 2,000.
Kuriyama had five hits last week, leaving him with 1,972 in his career. He is now 28 hits away from becoming the 54th NPB player — and fourth active player — to reach 2,000 in Japan.
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