Adam Jones is at the point in his career where an elimination game conjures up a feeling of finality beyond just the particular game or series in question.
Jones has been in the game a long time, making his MLB debut with the Seattle Mariners in 2006, and he knows he’s at the tail end of a career that’s been filled with highlights and achievements on and off the field.
He wasn’t blind to the fact a loss in Game 5 of the Japan Series could mean more than just the end of the Orix Buffaloes’ title hopes and their season. But if the 36-year-old felt any pressure, it didn’t show as he joked around with his teammates, waved at people in the stands and played catch with a couple of lucky fans in the on-field Excite Seats before the bottom of the sixth.
Jones eased any pressure his teammates may have felt in the top of the ninth with a dramatic go-ahead home run that ultimately gave the Buffaloes a 6-5 win over the Tokyo Yakult Swallows on Thursday at Tokyo Dome and pushed the Japan Series to a Game 6, which will take place on Saturday in Kobe.
“Being an older person, I was sitting on the bench thinking this could possibly be my last game — ever,” Jones said. “I just wanted to go out with a bang, and I’m glad that we’ve extended the series.”
Jones has been praised as much for his leadership and attitude as his play since joining the Buffaloes last season.
Jones spent 14 years in MLB, mostly with the Baltimore Orioles, winning four Gold Gloves and making five All-Star teams. He’s making the most of his experience in Japan, from taking in Japanese culture to getting acquainted with a different style of baseball. His charismatic personality and the way he plays the game made him beloved by fans in the majors, and Buffaloes supporters have taken to him just as quickly.
His first season in Japan was better than his second, and he has a .250 average with 16 home runs and 66 RBIs in 456 at-bats across both.
Orix manager Satoshi Nakajima praised Jones’ baseball acumen after he drew a walk that led to a ninth-inning rally during the club’s Game 1 victory, and hailed him as a player who can change the mood of a dugout with one swing after Game 5.
That’s what Jones did Thursday, with the Buffaloes still shell shocked after blowing a three-run lead in the bottom of the eighth after the Swallows fired back with a pair of walks and Tetsuto Yamada’s three-run homer to tie the score at 5-5.
Jones was ready when his number was called to start the ninth and sent a fastball from closer Scott McGough down the line and over the wall in left to give Orix a one-run lead.
He had been looking for any way to contribute after striking out in his three previous at-bats.
The San Diego, California, native has embodied Nakajima’s mantra of never wavering when times are tough and went to the plate with all the confidence in the world.
“Being a pinch hitter is not the easiest job,” Jones said. “So you just have to make sure that you’re ready. I’m a foreigner, we love fastballs and I’m glad that I was able to get one and I did not miss it. I’m just trying to be ready and do my job.”
The Buffaloes now head into Game 6 with the momentum of an emotional win, a big offensive night and the knowledge Sawamura Award winner Yoshinobu Yamamoto will get the ball.
“We’re still in a situation where we’re trying to catch up, but we’re going to do our best and not give up until the end,” Nakajima said. “I want to tie it up with Yoshinobu Yamamoto.”
No pitcher in Japan instills the type of confidence Orix has had in its ace this season.
“We have Yamamoto going, obviously the league’s best pitcher,” Jones said. “I just hope that he does what he’s done best and goes out there and gives us his best effort and our offense continues to do what we did today and let’s push it to a Game 7.”
The club’s faith in Yamamoto is not misplaced. He was far and away the best pitcher in Japan this season — the Sawamura Award committee admitted Monday there were no other candidates — and led NPB in most major categories.
He was 18-5 with a 1.39 ERA, 206 strikeouts and an 0.85 walks plus hits per innings pitched in 193⅔ innings.
The right-hander won his last 15 decisions of the regular season and tossed a shutout in his postseason debut in the final stage of the Pacific League Climax Series.
Yamamoto pitched against the Swallows in Game 1, but only lasted six innings after Yakult succeeded in scoring a run and running up his pitch count.
The Buffaloes didn’t score while Yamamoto was in the game in Game 1 and will try to give him a little more help this time after scoring six runs on 14 hits in Game 5.
Yutaro Sugimoto had three hits, and Nakajima’s move to put 20-year-old Ryo Ota in the lineup had an immediate payoff as he connected on two hits, including a tiebreaking triple in the seventh.
“I’ve been on the bench a lot until now, but I was preparing to do my best whenever I was given a chance,” Ota said.
The Buffaloes will try to stave off elimination again on Saturday, where they’ll play in the stadium where the Orix BlueWave won the Japan Series crown in 1996 — the franchise’s last prior to merging with the Kintetsu Buffaloes before the 2005 season.
Jones helped give the Buffaloes a shot in the arm and he’s expecting the fans to show up and spur the team on even more in Kobe.
“We’re going to need you,” Jones said. “Very loud, very proud, have all the signs. We’ve got Yamamoto going, so I like our chances.”
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