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The Orix Buffaloes wore nicknames on the back of their uniforms on Saturday. Takahiro Okada, commonly known as “T-Okada,” kept things simple with just a capital “T” on his nameplate. Cleanup hitter Yutaro Sugimoto was a bit more creative, wearing his nickname “Raoh" (from the manga "Fist of the North Star") on his uniform.

Ace pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto was “Yossy.” Yamamoto said it was a little embarrassing, noting that’s what he was called until junior high. He may have been Yossy back then, but now, many fans just call him the best pitcher in Japan.

Yamamoto showed why again on Saturday against the Seibu Lions. Unwilling to let Orix fall further behind in a hotly contested race for the Pacific League pennant, Yamamoto delivered the latest in a string of great pitching performances to keep the Buffaloes firmly on the heels of the first-place Chiba Lotte Marines. Orix is 2½ games back with 27 games left on its schedule.

“We’re in second place right now, but we’re going to keep fighting with the feeling that we’re definitely going to catch up,” Yamamoto said.

Yossy is a man on a mission and he’s been pitching like it for months.

Yamamoto threw eight scoreless innings against the Lions, striking out 11 while allowing just five singles and a walk in a 4-0 win.

“I’ve had a lot of games against Seibu, so I just tried to be precise,” Yamamoto said. “I had some runners get on base, but I’m glad I was able to hold them down in a pinch.”

It was the sixth consecutive start in which Yamamoto pitched at least six innings while allowing no more than one run.

“He pitched like he always does,” Buffaloes manager Satoshi Nakajima said.

Yoshinobu Yamamoto pitches against Seibu on Saturday in Osaka. | KYODO
Yoshinobu Yamamoto pitches against Seibu on Saturday in Osaka. | KYODO

Following Saturday’s victory, Steven Moya, who drove in two runs, grabbed Yamamoto's right wrist and raised his arm during the hero interview, as if to remind everyone to appreciate what they have in the 23-year-old ace.

“Every opportunity I get to help the team is great, and more when he’s pitching, because I know he’s a beast,” Moya said.

For all of the new stars that have burned brightly during the Buffaloes' surprisingly competitive 2021 campaign, Yamamoto is still at the center of the Orix universe. He’s making a name for himself domestically one gem at a time and raised his international profile by helping Japan win the Premier12 in 2019 and a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

The right-hander won an ERA title in his first season as a full-time starter in 2019 and has been on an upward trajectory ever since. The young pitcher hasn’t wilted under the increasing glare of the spotlight, he’s blossomed.

Yamamoto improved to 14-5 with a 1.46 ERA and 165 strikeouts over 153⅔ innings after Saturday’s win. He leads NPB by a decent margin in all three categories — wins, ERA and strikeouts — and has a great chance at winning the overall pitching Triple Crown. He also leads NPB with a 0.87 WHIP and 28.1 strikeout percentage. Opponents are hitting just .186 against him this season.

He should be the favorite for the Sawamura Award and could take home PL MVP honors if the Buffaloes overtake the Marines.

Yamamoto hasn’t lost a decision since May 19 and has won 11 of his last 12 starts, putting him two wins shy of the 13 straight victories former Buffaloes ace Chihiro Kaneko reeled off in 2010. At a time of the year when it feels like more weight is attached to every win or loss, Yamamoto has been virtually automatic.

He has the potential to join Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani in MLB in the future. He’s made tweaks each offseason and used the coronavirus-induced delay in the 2020 season to figure out how to get a little more life on his fastball. His velocity sits in the low-to-mid 90s and he has a forkball that rolls off the table late. Yamamoto also has a big, breaking curveball, a cutter, a shuuto and slider in his arsenal.

Yamamoto leads NPB in wins, ERA and strikeouts as well as WHIP and strikeout percentage. | KYODO
Yamamoto leads NPB in wins, ERA and strikeouts as well as WHIP and strikeout percentage. | KYODO

Yamamoto is in the middle of a superb three-year run, posting a 1.85 ERA in 423⅓ innings since 2019. Yamamoto has 441 strikeouts over that period. He reached 500 career strikeouts on Saturday, making him the fastest in franchise history to the mark. After winning the PL ERA crown with a 1.95 ERA in 2019, he finished second with a 2.20 ERA last season.

His win-loss record — 30-15 over the past three years — is getting a boost from the Buffaloes’ newfound success this season. Yamamoto reached double digits for the first time this year after having only a pair of eight-win campaigns to show for being one of Japan's best pitchers in 2019 and 2020.

The last time an Orix pitcher won the Sawamura Award was in 2014, when Kaneko won 16 games and posted a 1.98 ERA. The Buffaloes nearly won the pennant that season but finished behind the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks by just 2 percentage points.

Now, the club has another ace on its hands and another real chance at winning the pennant for the first time as the Orix Buffaloes — the pre-merger Orix BlueWave last won in 1996 and the Kintetsu Buffaloes in 2001.

Yamamoto may not get to face the Marines if he remains on his current rest schedule, but every game matters and when Yamamoto is on the hill, the Buffaloes know they have a chance.

After all, neither Yamomoto nor Yossy has let them down yet this year.

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