Even though the 2021 Japan Series features some of NPB’s top rising stars, 41-year-old Tokyo Yakult Swallows pitcher Masanori Ishikawa proved it’s not just a young man’s game.
Ishikawa leaned on two decades of experience and a sinker batters kept swinging over to throw six solid frames and help the Swallows move to the brink of their first Japan Series title in 20 years with a 2-1 win over the Orix Buffaloes in Game 4 at Tokyo Dome on Wednesday night.
“I’m really, really happy,” Ishikawa said.
Jose Osuna broke a 1-1 tie with an RBI single in the sixth, and relievers Taichi Ishiyama, Noboru Shimizu and closer Scott McGough protected a slim advantage the rest of the way.
“I was pitching with the intention of handing it over to the bullpen in good shape,” Ishikawa said. “The batters got the first run for us and the fielders played good defense.”
Ishikawa pitched for the Swallows in Game 1 and Game 5 of the 2015 Japan Series, when the team fell short against the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. The left-hander lost both games, but picked up his first Japan Series victory on Wednesday.
Ishikawa struck out five and allowed just three hits and walked one batter. He didn’t have a blistering fastball — he threw one at 128 kph (80 mph) to Masataka Yoshida for a strike — but he threw it to the dangerous hitters in the Buffaloes’ lineup anyway. He got swings on his sinker and got a few calls on the corners on a solid night on the mound.
“I had a bad experience in the Japan Series the last time,” Ishikawa said. “I was given a game as important as Game 4 and I really wanted to respond to the manager’s faith in me. I thought it’d be absolutely OK (one manager’s Shingo Takatsu’s sayings that has morphed into a slogan) and went up on the mound.”
Yakult leads the series 3-1 and can clinch its first title since 2001 with a win in Game 5 on Thursday at Tokyo Dome. The Swallows have won three straight after losing Game 1 on a walk-off double.
“We’re going to do our best to finish it in Tokyo Dome,” Ishikawa said.
The Buffaloes will enter Game 5 with their backs against the wall.
“We just have to keep going,” Orix infielder Yuma Mune said. “Everyone wants to come back and do what they can to win the three games that are left.”
Game 3 hero Domingo Santana got things started early for Yakult with a home run to right to start the second inning. That came one night after he gave the Swallows the lead with a two-run homer in his final at-bat of Game 3
Ishikawa only allowed one baserunner from the second through the fifth innings. He only needed two pitches to record the first two outs of the sixth before giving up his second hit of the game against Shuhei Fukuda.
Mune, who has been the hottest hitter in the series, then singled into right and Fukuda was able to score the tying run after Santana couldn’t field the ball cleanly.
It didn’t take long for Yakult to strike back.
Tetsuto Yamada drew a walk to start the bottom half of the inning against reliever Hirotoshi Masui. The Buffaloes, however, caught a break when first baseman Takahiro Okada caught a line drive hit by Munetaka Murkami and then stepped on the bag to complete the double play.
The Swallows kept up the pressure, as Santana drew a two-out walk and Yuhei Nakamura singled to right. Osuna came to the plate with runners on first and second and new reliever Motoki Higa on the mound and connected on an RBI single to make the score 2-1.
The run was charged to Masui, who was also charged with the loss.
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