NPB news: Oct. 19, 2023

Wednesday’s Foreplay Series Games 2 both came down to four closers in decisive ninth innings, one game the climax of a back-and-forth free-for-all, and the other a pitchers’ duel.

Thursday’s games

Marines 6, Buffaloes 5: At Osaka UFO Dome, Orix’s bullpen plan couldn’t protect a one-run ninth-inning lead, as the miraculous Marines avoided facing an elimination game on Friday.

For the second straight night, Lotte went into the late innings with a lead, thanks to good speed and a smoke-and-mirrors offense that relied on poorly hit balls finding holes. Lotte’s C.C. Mercedes attacked the zone in the first only to be ambushed for three runs. He left, however, with a 4-3 lead over Orix southpaw Daiki Tajima.

Also, for a second straight night, Lotte’s slim lead didn’t last, as the big swinging Buffaloes came from behind on a two-run Leandro Cedeno homer in the eighth. But Taisuke Yamaoka, who moved to the bullpen during the summer, from where he recorded eight holds, three saves and one win in relief let Lotte scratch out two runs.

After giving Yoshinobu Yamamoto a good battering with a series of well-placed balls on Wednesday, the Marines again scored in the first. Takashi Ogino drew a four-pitch leadoff walk. Good base running put runners on second and third with one out on a Yudai Fujioka single, allowing Gregory Polanco to bring in the first run with a groundout.

The Buffaloes responded by taking big cuts whenever Mercedes ventured into the strike zone. Hiromi Oka‘s sliding catch robbed Orix of a first-inning leadoff single, but five straight well-hit balls – ok four well-hit balls and a hard-hit chopper — weren’t caught, put the Buffaloes in front and loaded the bases for a third run to score on a Marwin Gonzalez sacrifice fly.

The Marines recaptured the lead with three runs in the sixth, starting their rally with two-out walks by Shingo Ishikawa and Polanco. Oka used his speed to turn a flare to left into an RBI double, and a Hisanori Yasuda grounder found a hole for a two-run single.

The Buffaloes again found their way back. Ninety-six kilogram righty Keisuke Sawada hit Tomoya Mori with a two-out pitch, and Cedeno hit a navel-high 0-1 fastball just over the wall in left. Yuki Udagawa then blew away all three hitters he faced, striking out Polanco on five straight fastballs to end the Marines’ eighth.

Gonzalez opened Orix’s eighth with a leadoff double and with one out, PL batting champion Yuma Tongu pinch-hit, his first appearance since breaking a toe on Sept. 13. Tongu showed no rust but lacked Lotte’s lucky hole-finding Marines mojo, the bullet off his bat finding a glove instead for the third out.

A day after 39-year-old Yoshihisa Hirano became the oldest to record a save in the postseason since the stat was imported in 1975, the next member of manager Satoshi Nakajima’s revolving closer squad, Yamaoka took the mound in the ninth. He walked Katsuya Kakunaka on four pitches, pinch-runner Koshiro Wada stole second and scored when Yasuda’s smash to first took a hop past first baseman Keita Nakagawa for an RBI single. Pinch-runner Ryusei Ogawa was sacrificed to third and scored the go-ahead run on Koki Yamaguchi‘s fly to medium-deep center.

Marines closer Naoya Masuda survived a two-out walk to Mori by striking out Cedeno to end it, allowing Lotte to reduce the Buffaloes’ series lead to 2-1.

Tigers 2, Carp 1: At Koshien Stadium, where Tuesday’s Tigers win was closer than the final score Game 2 was a nail-biter all the way, ending when a closer, an experienced one on this side of the Hyogo Prefecture-Osaka border, blew up in the ninth inning, helped when the ticking time bomb of manager Takahiro Arai’s intentional walks backfired on the third try.

The win lifted Hanshin to a 3-0 lead, making Friday’s Game 3 an elimination game that will send Hanshin to its first Japan Series since Tsuyoshi Nishioka ended the 2014 clash by being called out for interference running down the first base line. Hanshin needs just one tie over the remaining four games at Koshien, so that deal is all but done.

Ryosuke Kikuchi opened the game by slashing a double past third, moved to third on a groundout and scored when Kaito Kozono simply put the bat on the ball and looped it for a double.

As on Wednesday, when a routine grounder got past first base for a tie-breaking Tigers RBI double, Hanshin tied it on two well-hit singles, with Teruaki Sato scoring from first when Sheldon Neuse‘s hard-hit ball wrong-footed right fielder Shota Suekane, who was tagged with a two-base error.

Ito caught a break, literally, in the seventh, when the first two Carp hitters hit bullets. With the runner on first going, Ito caught Suekane’s liner up the middle for an easy double play in a three-batter inning, but after 99 pitches, Tigers skipper Akinobu Okada decided not to trust to good fortune and went to his bullpen, forcing Osera out of the game when Carp skipper pinch-hit for his starter to lead off the inning.

Righty Daichi Ishii blew away the first two hitters, but lefty Hiroya Shimamoto surrendered back-to-back singles to Takayoshi Noma and Kozono. Right-hander Colten Brewer, who signed in July, entered to face pinch-hitting specialist Ryuhei Matsuyama and struck him out.

Right-hander Sotaro Shimauchi, who led the CL this season in “hold points” – relief wins plus holds, took over in the bottom of the eighth for Hiroshima. Shimauchi changed speeds as well as one can en route to two easy pop ups and a strikeout.

A 1-2-3 inning from Hanshin closer Suguru Iwazaki brought his Carp counterpart, Ryoji Kuribayashi into the game in the bottom of the ninth. The Tigers loaded the bases on a one-out Yusuke Oyama double and two two-out walks, one intentional, and one not. Twice before, Arai had used the intentional walk to help get out of jams, this one helped the Tigers end the game.

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