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Yoshinobu Yamamoto gave everything he could give in Game 6 of the Japan Series.

The Orix Buffaloes’ 23-year-old ace had the game in his hands for nine innings on Saturday night at Hotto Motto Field Kobe, where the temperature dipped to 7 degrees Celsius at one point.

Yamamoto threw 141 pitches — the most he’s ever thrown — and allowed just one run while striking out 11, the first double-digit strikeout performance in a Japan Series game since 2018 and the 25th overall.

It was a valiant effort that came up agonizingly short — a perfect way to describe a Japan Series that might have gone another way for the Buffaloes if the ball had bounced differently.

One of the final bounces was the cruelest, a passed ball that allowed the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ Yasutaka Shiomi to get into scoring position with two outs in the 12th inning of Game 6. Shiomi later scored the go-ahead run of a 2-1 series-clinching victory on a pinch-hit RBI single from Shingo Kawabata to bring Orix’s thrilling season to a somber end.

”I’m really disappointed,” said Yamamoto, who didn’t factor in the Game 6 decision. “However, I was able to give it my all and was able to pitch with the same feeling as during the season.”

The future looks bright for Yamamoto, and Orix fans are hoping the same can be said about the rest of this year’s surprising Pacific League champions.

Yamamoto’s Game 6 will be remembered as one of the most stirring performances in defeat in the Japan Series. While the Swallows had activity in their bullpen to make sure they had an arm ready for each phase of the game, there was no life in the Buffaloes’ bullpen as Yamamoto pitched deep into the night. It was a sign of the faith the team, the organization and the fans had in the young right-hander.

He managed to keep the game scoreless after Tetsuto Yamada reached third with one out in the fourth by using his forkball to strike out Domingo Santana and Yuhei Nakamura.

When the Swallows put two runners on after errors to start the sixth in a 1-1 game, Yamamoto got Santana to hit into a double play and retired Nakamura — with Yamada again on third — to end the threat.

After the seventh, Yamamoto told the coaches he was good for two more frames and then struck out the side in the eighth and retired the Swallows in order in the ninth.

Yamamoto gave his team a great chance to win, the Buffaloes just didn’t come up with the hits they needed — which was the case in each of their losses throughout the tightly contested series.

“We couldn’t give him any run support even though he pitched that much,” Orix manager Satoshi Nakajima said.

Yamamoto allowed two runs and struck out 20 in 15 innings over two starts in the Japan Series and there’s no reason to think he won’t build off the momentum of a strong overall performance in 2021.

Buffaloes outfielder Yutaro Sugimoto celebrates after a two-run home run in Game 3 of the Japan Series at Tokyo Dome on Nov. 23. | KYODO
Buffaloes outfielder Yutaro Sugimoto celebrates after a two-run home run in Game 3 of the Japan Series at Tokyo Dome on Nov. 23. | KYODO

As for the rest of the Buffaloes, their next step is to ensure this year’s run from worst-to-first in the Pacific League wasn’t just a case of catching lightning in a bottle.

“It’s not just about gaining experience,” Nakajima said. “It’s also about that experience pointing the players in the right direction in their future lives in baseball.”

The Buffaloes were taught a hard lesson by the Swallows in a series that could’ve swung in either direction.

Still, the club has the makings of a strong pitching staff. Behind Yamamoto they have 13-game winner and Pacific League Rookie of the Year candidate Hiroya Miyagi, Daiki Tajima, who gained valuable experience this postseason, and Taisuke Yamaoka, who should be fully recovered from elbow surgery when the season begins.

Third baseman Yuma Mune took a big step forward in 2021 and it showed during the Japan Series as he finished with a series-high eight hits, hitting safely in all six games.

Mune also had some good moments in the field, but the three errors he made show he still has growth to make on that front. The same goes for shortstop Kotaro Kurebayashi, who has the ability to be a promising fielder and collected seven hits.

If those two take another step forward, Masataka Yoshida remains as good as he is now and late-blooming PL home run champ Yutaro Sugimoto proves to be more than a one-season wonder, the Buffaloes could very likely compete for the pennant again in the near future. The team may also welcome in a new crop of foreign players amid reports that Adam Jones, among others, will not return in 2022.

Of course, all eyes will be on Yamamoto for the foreseeable future. He won the Sawamura Award as the top pitcher in NPB this year and at 23 could still have his best years ahead of him. He’s improved in each of the last three seasons, which culminated in him going 18-5 with a 1.39 ERA and 206 strikeouts in 193⅔ innings in 2021.

He gave the fans one last flourish on Saturday in the Japan Series, and it’s possible there’s more to come from the Buffaloes and their talented pitcher going forward.

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