When Orix Buffaloes manager Satoshi Nakajima was asked to recap his team’s victory in its postseason opener on Wednesday, there was only one thing on his mind.

“Yamamoto, Yamamoto, Yamamoto — right?” Nakajima said.

The Chiba Lotte Marines were probably muttering the same thing in the visiting clubhouse, only more out of frustration and bewilderment than admiration.

Yoshinobu Yamamoto made his first playoff appearance one to remember, throwing a 10-strikeout shutout in the Buffaloes’ 1-0 win over the Marines in Game 1 of the Pacific League Climax Series Final Stage at Kyocera Dome in Osaka on Wednesday night.

The Buffaloes ace was in total control, allowing just one single in each of the first four innings before retiring the final 18 batters in order and finishing the game without a walk.

"I was really excited," Yamamoto said during his hero interview. "I'm relieved I was able to find a way to win."

Having entered the series with a one-game advantage, Yamamoto’s gem gave Orix a 2-0 lead over the Marines and left the club two wins away from the Japan Series.

"Even though we had the advantage, I thought that getting this win was very important,” Yamamoto said. “So I was definitely going to win.”

The game was yet another instance of the 23-year-old ace shining under the spotlight. Game 1 may have been Yamamoto's first NPB playoff game, but it wasn’t his first time on a major stage.

He pitched out of the bullpen for the Samurai Japan squad that won the Premier12 in 2019, allowing one run over five innings with six strikeouts during that tournament.

Yamamoto wore the national team uniform again this summer — as a starter this time — during the Tokyo Olympics. He allowed two runs and struck out 18 over 11⅓ innings to help Japan win its first Olympic gold medal in baseball.

Before Wednesday night, his biggest game for Orix may have come in his final start this year, when he faced the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, a playoff team, on Oct. 25 in a game that was crucial to the Buffaloes’ hopes of winning the Pacific League pennant. Yamamoto delivered then as well, hurling a seven-strikeout shutout in a 4-0 win.

He again lived up to the lofty standard he’s set for himself when he took the mound in the Climax Series for the first time Wednesday. That was a good thing for the Buffaloes, because there was no room for error with Ayumu Ishikawa dealing for the Marines. Ishikawa held Orix to one run on five hits over seven innings.

The Buffaloes scored for Yamamoto in the bottom of the first and the right-hander didn’t bend the rest of the way as he protected a slim one-run advantage.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve played and it looked like Yoshinobu was a little nervous,” said Takahiro Okada, who drove in the game’s only run on an RBI single in the first. “So I’m glad we were able to score first.”

One of the Marines’ few scoring opportunities came in the top of the first, with slugger Brandon Laird at the plate and a runner on second with two outs. Yamamoto buckled Laird’s knees with a big curveball to end that threat. He broke out the curveball again in the fourth inning to strike out Koki Yamaguchi, to end the inning with a runner on third.

"I put runners on base in every inning in the early part of the game and had to pitch in difficult situations," Yamamoto said. "Somehow, the curveball really helped me."

Yamamoto has already had a spectacular year, and it can still get better. He made a strong and convincing case for both the Sawamura Award and PL MVP honors by going 18-5 with a 1.39 ERA, 206 strikeouts and a 0.85 WHIP in 193⅔ innings during the regular season, and finished the year with 15 straight winning decisions.

His performance helped carry the Buffaloes from last-place finishes in 2019 and 2020 to the PL title this year. He helped Orix win the interleague title, contributed to Japan capturing Olympic gold at the Tokyo Games and continued winning in the second half of the NPB season to help the Buffaloes bring home their first pennant since 1996.

His latest big-game performance brought his team closer to the Japan Series, later this month, where he’ll be hoping to cap the year by winning the biggest prize still up for grabs.

"I'm going to pitch with all my power," he said, "to make sure we finish as the best in Japan."

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.