Nick Martinez and Kodai Senga are doing everything they can to keep the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in the playoff picture.
They have been two of the best pitchers in NPB during the second half of the season — Martinez has been one of the best, period — and will be a formidable duo if the three-time defending Japan Series champs manage to slip into the postseason.
That, of course, is easier said than done. The Pacific League pennant is probably out of reach — practically if not mathematically — with the first-place Chiba Lotte Marines seven games ahead of fourth-place SoftBank, which has 22 games left.
A spot in the Climax Series remains well within reach, however, with the Hawks just 1½ games back of the third-place Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
"It's a point of the season where we have to win big games like this against good teams if we want to make the playoffs," Martinez said after a win over the Marines on Wednesday in Chiba. "Every game from here on out is very much like a playoff game."
Martinez and Senga have each made six starts since the season resumed after the Tokyo Games, allowing a combined 12 runs over 84⅔ innings — a 1.28 ERA over 12 games.
It's no wonder manager Kimiyasu Kudo wanted them to pitch against the Marines recently.
Senga took a loss against the Marines on Sept. 14 despite striking out 14 over eight innings — he allowed a run in the fourth and two more in the eighth while the Hawks scored just once behind him.
The SoftBank ace faced Lotte on the road on Wednesday and held them to one run over 7⅔ innings in a victory.
"The next time I pitch, I want to pitch in a way that gives the team a chance to win," Senga said after that game. "We've got a lot of intense games coming up and I want to do my best to help the team."
Martinez got a no-decision against the Marines on Sept. 16 despite seven innings of one-run ball. He went up against the Marines again on Thursday and, like Senga, came away with a victory. Martinez held Lotte scoreless over seven innings before turning it over to the bullpen.
That's nothing new for Martinez, the absolute steal of the offseason.
The American was signed as a free agent after three years with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. He's been one of the most consistent pitchers in NPB this season, with a quality start percentage of 94.1. Martinez is 8-3 in 17 starts with a 1.75 ERA and 1.03 WHIP.
"I have a great team behind me," Martinez said Wednesday. "(Takuya) Kai is a great catcher. I think it's a collective effort."
Martinez's win-loss record might be even better if he received more run support. The right-hander has six no-decisions in games during which he pitched at least six innings while allowing no more than two runs. He allowed one or no runs in four of those games. He has yet to give up more than three runs in a single outing.
He also pitched well for Team USA during the Tokyo Olympics, where he earned a silver medal.
While Martinez was shutting down opposing lineups in the first half of the year, Senga was recovering from the ankle injury he suffered in his first start of the year in April. He didn't make another appearance for the top team until July 6 and was tagged for 10 runs in two innings.
Senga was then a late addition to the Olympic team and helped Samurai Japan win the gold medal.
The extended break for the All-Star Game and Olympics and getting to play in the Olympics was a boost for Senga. He’s made six starts since Aug. 18 and pitched at least six innings in all of them, posting a 1.27 ERA.
Even though Senga and Martinez are on a roll, they can't pitch every game. In order for the Hawks to get a chance to defend their title, the rest of the team needs to step up over the final weeks of the season.
SoftBank is on the outside looking in late for the first time in a long time. The champs may be wobbly, but if they can hang on long enough, they have a potent 1-2 combination that could still help them punch a ticket to the Climax Series.
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