The Tokyo Yakult Swallows overcame the best pitcher in Japan to become the best team in Japan.

Pinch hitter Shingo Kawabata hit a bloop single to left to bring in the go-ahead run in the top of the 12th, and reliever Scott McGough closed out an entertaining Japan Series as the Swallows won the title with a 2-1 victory over the Orix Buffaloes at Hotto Motto Field Kobe on a chilly Saturday night.

Yakult won the series 4-2.

“It was a really difficult season,” Swallows manager Shingo Takatsu said. “It was even more difficult because we sunk to last place last year and the year before that. But I think the joy is even greater.”

Either the Swallows or the Buffaloes were going to cap their worst-to-first story with a Japan Series crown and the clock struck midnight on the Buffaloes in the 12th.

“It’s really tough because we lost,” Buffaloes manager Satoshi Nakajima said.

Yasutaka Shiomi hit a two-out single in the 12th and moved to second on a passed ball. Kawabata, who had 30 hits as a pinch hitter this season, one fewer than the franchise record, sent Ryo Yoshida’s seventh pitch into shallow left as the speedy Shiomi came home.

The Swallows won their first Japan Series title since 2001 and claimed the first by a Central League team since 2012 to end a run of dominance by Pacific League clubs.

Yakult had to overcome a Herculean performance by Orix ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto to get it done. Yamamoto pitched nine innings of one-run ball and struck out 11 on 141 pitches before turning over a tie game to the bullpen in the 10th.

“I think I was able to give everything because it was the last game,” he said. “I felt like I was able to raise my level. It was a good game, but we lost.”

McGough, who had been on the losing end of two games during the series, got the ultimate revenge by finishing off the Buffaloes with 2⅓ innings of scoreless relief to earn the win. Yoshida was charged with the loss.

This year’s Japan Series was tightly contested from start to finish, with all six games decided by two runs or fewer and five of the six decided by one run. Game 6 lasted exactly five hours and it took 12 innings to finally find a winner.

“The Orix Buffaloes are a strong team,” Takatsu said. “It wasn’t easy to keep them from scoring runs.”

Swallows catcher Yuhei Nakamura was named MVP of the series.

“I really didn’t think I could win this,” he said. “I’ve really been working hard all year, and this is the result,”

Swallows veteran Norichika Aoki, who was a star with the team before leaving for the major leagues, captured the first Japan Series title of his career. Star infielders Tetsuto Yamada and Munetaka Murakami are also first-time NPB champions and added a Japan Series title to the Olympic gold medal they won at the Tokyo Games this summer.

Takatsu won four Japan Series as a player — he also has a World Series ring — and now has his first as a manager.

The title caps a stunning turnaround for a team that finished last in the Central League in 2019 and 2020.

Shingo Kawabata hits a go-ahead single in the 12th to help lift the Swallows to a win over the Buffaloes in Game 6 of the Japan Series. | KYODO
Shingo Kawabata hits a go-ahead single in the 12th to help lift the Swallows to a win over the Buffaloes in Game 6 of the Japan Series. | KYODO

Game 6 was another close game in a series full of them.

Swallows first baseman Jose Osuna, who doubled in his first at-bat, began the fifth with a single and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt. Naomichi Nishiura lined out to third for the second out, but Yasutaka Shiomi singled to left and Osuna scored from second to make the score 1-0.

Orix catcher Kenya Wakatsuki was called out at first on a grounder to second with one out in the bottom of the fifth, but was later ruled safe on a replay review. Ryo Ota moved him over with a bunt and Shuhei Fukuda tied the score with a single to shallow left.

Yamada and Murakami reached on errors to begin the Yakult half of the sixth. The Swallows failed to take advantage, as Domingo Santana hit into a double play and Yuhei Nakamura grounded out to short.

Swallows reliever Noboru Shimizu kept the Buffaloes off the scoreboard in the bottom of the ninth to send an NPB game into extra innings for the first time this year. The league capped games at nine innings in 2021, but adjusted the rules to allow Japan Series contests to last 12 innings.

Neither team could get another run across the plate until Kawabata’s clutch hit in the 12th.

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