Yoshio Itoi, Joe Gunkel and Robert Suarez helped the Hanshin Tigers earn a one-run win over the Yomiuri Giants on Sunday afternoon. Later that night, Munetaka Murakami hit a two-run homer for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in a 16-0 destruction of the Chunichi Dragons.
Those results left the Swallows and Tigers in a virtual tie for first place in the Central League.
The problem is, they only give out one pennant.
The race for the CL title is as tight as it can be, and even though the Climax Series doesn’t start until Nov. 6, the final push for the pennant will make it feel like postseason baseball came early.
“Everyone has one goal, to reach the top,” Itoi said when asked about Hanshin’s mindset during his hero interview. “I’m going to do my best in the remaining games so that we can toss the manager in the air (in celebration).”
The first-place Swallows (59-42-16) lead the Tigers (65-48-7) by mere percentage points. Yakult has a .584 winning percentage to Hanshin’s .575. Both clubs are in pursuit of their first pennant in several seasons. The Swallows last won in 2015, and Tigers fans have been waiting since 2005.
The Yomiuri Giants (57-48-17) won the last two CL titles and sit four games behind the leaders in third place.
Yakult was once bringing up the rear in the three-team race before streaking up the standings on the strength of an 8-0-4 run since Sept. 14. Hanshin, which led the league for most of the year, is 4-3-3 over the same span and Yomiuri is 4-5-2.
Murakami has bolstered his MVP case during the hot streak, going 15-for-46 with five homers and 15 RBIs. The 21-year-old slugger is batting .284 overall and tied for the NPB lead with 38 home runs. Murakami drove in his 100th run of the year on Sunday, making him the youngest player in CL history to post a 100-RBI season.
“It’s a great achievement,” Swallows manager Shingo Takatsu told reporters after the game. “There will be many more goals to aim for in the future.” The Swallows have plenty of firepower outside of Murakami and have been surprisingly potent on the mound with a 3.43 team ERA that is the second-best in the league.
Yakult will be tested over the coming days. The Swallows have a relatively manageable slate this week, with series against the DeNA BayStars and Hiroshima Carp. The week of Oct. 4, however, will see them play a six-game homestand with series against the Giants and then the Tigers.
Hanshin is trying to get its groove back after falling out of first place. The club prevented Yakult from extending its lead over the weekend by winning two and tying one against the Giants at Tokyo Dome.
“We can’t reach the top unless we beat the strong Giants,” Itoi said.
The return of pitcher Haruto Takahashi could give the club a major boost.
Takahashi didn’t make his season debut until Sept. 8, due to injury, and had a shaky start. He’s bounced back with 16 consecutive scoreless innings— with 23 strikeouts and one walk — over his last two outings, including a 13-strikeout shutout of the Giants on Saturday.
“I joined the team late, so I’m just going to contribute however I can from here on out,” he said Saturday.
That is an encouraging sign for a team that has taken a step back on the mound. Hanshin’s 3.92 team ERA in September is fourth among the six CL clubs, per Deltagraphs. Yakult is first at 2.35.
Yomiuri has the most work to do. The Giants are just 6-11-5 this month and trending in the wrong direction. The good news is that with an 11-game lead on the Dragons, the Kyojin’s spot in the Climax Series is all but assured.
Ace Tomoyuki Sugano has had three good starts and could finally be rounding into form. On the flip slide, C.C. Mercedes and first-half star Yuki Takahashi have gone in the opposite direction — though Takahashi turned in a quality start against the Carp on Sept. 23.
The Giants can go up against any team offensively, but have not pitched as well as of late.
Every game will be important down the stretch and the A-Class teams’ games against each other will have added importance as they jostle for position. Yakult still has 11 games left against the other two, while Hanshin has eight and Yomiuri has nine.
While none of the top three teams is in danger of missing the playoffs, that doesn’t take any of the excitement out of the race. Winning the pennant, after all, is much better than not winning the pennant.
More practically, winning the league means a bye into the second stage of the Climax Series and beginning that round with a one-win advantage and the luxury of hosting every game.
Three teams, one pennant. The calendar may say autumn is here, but the temperature is still rising in the top half of the Central League.
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