Masanori Ishikawa joined the Tokyo Yakult Swallows two decades ago through a now-abolished free signing system at the 2001 draft — about a month after the Swallows defeated the Kintetsu Buffaloes in the Japan Series.

There have been a lot of changes — in both baseball and the world as a whole — since then, but Ishikawa in a Swallows uniform has been a constant throughout. He’s also been nothing if not solidly consistent with a 177-176 career record and 3.86 ERA across 2,953 innings in 504 games.

At 6:04 p.m. at Tokyo Dome on Wednesday night, the 41-year-old lefty became one of the oldest pitchers to start a Japan Series game. At 8:54 p.m., he became the oldest Central League pitcher to win one, narrowly outdueling a hurler 18-years his junior to help bring the Swallows to the brink of their first Japan Series title since 2001 with a 2-1 win over the Orix Buffaloes in Game 4.

Even with the waves of 20-plus years of games crashing against his body, Ishikawa can still produce nights like these.

As the saying goes, “you’re only as old as you feel.”

“Age doesn’t matter,” Ishikawa said. “I still feel like a rookie when I’m up on the mound.”

Still, Ishikawa is no longer armed with all of the physical weapons of his youth and instead he cut through the Buffaloes’ lineup on mostly guile and guts for six strong innings, retiring 13 in a row at one point between the second and sixth frames. He allowed only three singles, struck out five and walked one to help Yakult take a 3-1 lead in the series.

“We went with young pitchers in the first two games, (Yasuhiro) Ogawa yesterday and Ishikawa today,” Swallows manager Shingo Takatsu said. “It doesn’t matter how old you are. He shouldered the responsibility in every inning and that led us to the win.”

Ishikawa reached deep into his bag and threw whatever he wrapped his hand around to the plate. The southpaw threw with a youth’s exuberance and a veteran’s savvy and the mix was too much for the Buffaloes, who often failed to make solid contact on Ishikawa’s good breaking balls and didn’t do much with his more hittable pitches.

“I was just following (catcher Yuhei) Nakamura’s lead,” he said, according to Sports Nippon.

He gave Yakult valuable innings on a night when 23-year-old Orix starter Soichiro Yamazaki delivered five frames of one-run ball to keep the game close.

Ishikawa faced Pacific League batting champion Masataka Yoshida with a runner on base in the first and fired a 130-kph (81 mph) shuuto down the middle, threw another below the strike zone for a ball and got Yoshida to swing through two low pitches, a slider and a sinker, for the strikeout.

Masanori Ishikawa has spent 20 seasons with the Swallows and helped the team move within one win of winning the Japan Series with his performance on Wednesday. | KYODO
Masanori Ishikawa has spent 20 seasons with the Swallows and helped the team move within one win of winning the Japan Series with his performance on Wednesday. | KYODO

He then toyed around the edges against PL home run champ Yutaro Sugimoto before getting a flyout to center on an outside sinker. He did that the whole night, relying on his sinker, among other pitches, and throwing a fastball that topped out at just 136 kph (85 mph).

There may not have been many fans who could’ve envisioned a night like this a year ago.

Ishikawa looked his age for parts of 2020, finishing the season with a 4.48 ERA in 76⅓ innings and a 2-8 record. He didn’t get off to a good start in 2021, allowing 16 runs in 4⅔ innings during two spring games. He made his first start of the season against the Hanshin Tigers on April 14 and was taken off the roster shortly afterward.

Ishikawa made seven starts on the farm — allowing one earned run in 28 innings — before returning to the top team in June and finished the year with a 3.07 ERA in 82 innings. He was the fourth-oldest player in NPB behind 44-year-old Chunichi Dragons outfielder Kosuke Fukudome.

Both Ishikawa and Fukudome, who recently signed a contract for 2022, have indicated they will continue playing next year.

Ishikawa passed former Yomiuri Giants pitcher Kimiyasu Kudo to become the oldest CL pitcher to win a Japan Series game. Kudo recorded his victory at 39 years, 5 months, in 2002. The only older pitcher to earn a win is Tadashi Wakabayashi, who was 42 years and 8 months old when he threw 12 innings, allowing two runs, for the Pacific League’s Mainichi Orions in Game 1 of the first Japan Series in 1950.

The victory was also Ishikawa’s first in three Japan Series starts. The previous two came in 2015, when he was the losing pitcher in both the opening game and the series-clinching fifth game against a Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks team managed by Kudo.

“It’s taken a long time to get to this Japan Series, and I was really able to get a win,” Ishikawa said.

If his teammates can get one more, he will add a Japan Series crown to his already long, long legacy with the Swallows.

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