A funny thing happened this week. The Yakult Swallows moved into first place in the Central League while playing like pennant contenders but without their manager acting like they are.
Because the Hanshin Tigers have refused to play nearly as many tie games as everyone else, the first-place Swallows gained a game on the second-place Tigers, who are now zero games behind them. Hurray for COVID rules.
The Lotte Marines, meanwhile, have now lost consecutive games, after not doing so for 37 days, although thanks to losses by Orix and Rakuten, their lead over their two closest pursuers remained unchanged. The Hawks, however, with Alfredo Despaigne hitting again, and their top two late relievers back — if not in top form — look like they are on a mission to sneak into the playoffs.
Lions 4, Eagles 3
At MetLife Dome, Seibu’s Tomoya Mori hit his 10th home run, singled, walked twice and hit a two-out ninth-inning double that set up the Lions’ winning run that scored on a Sena Tsuge single off Rakuten’s closer du jour Tomohito Sakai (3-3).
Lions leadoff man Sosuke Genda doubled in the fifth, went to third on a sacrifice and scored on a delayed double steal in tandem with Mori. Wu Nien-ting’s ninth home run made it 3-1 in the sixth, but Matsumoto, who struck out seven without issuing a walk, couldn’t hold it.
Okajima doubled to open the Eagles’ seventh. Eigoro Mogi singled him home and tied it on a Rusney Castillo pinch-hit single. Demoted Lions closer Tatsushi Masuda retired the first two batters in the eighth before leaving the bases loaded, while Kaima Taira (2-2) stranded two runners in the ninth and earned the win.
Hawks 5, Marines 0
At Chiba’s Zozo Marine Stadium, SoftBank scored three runs in two innings off lefty Seiya Dohi (0-1) who filled in as starter after Roki Sasaki was scratched due to lower-back stiffness. Hawks right-hander Nick Martinez (8-3, 1.75) worked seven scoreless innings to earn his first win since June 10. In his six starts since he pitched for the United States in the Olympics, Martinez is 1-1 with a 1.29 ERA.
Yuki Yanagita put the Hawks on the board leading off the second when he tied Orix’s Yutaro Sugimoto for the PL home run lead with his 27th. Alfredo Despaigne doubled to restart the five-hit three-run inning.
Ryoya Kurihara’s 16th homer, off rookie lefty Shota Suzuki, made it 4-0 in the fifth, and three straight one-out singles by Kurihara, Yanagita and Despaigne made it 5-0 in the seventh.
Yugo Bando worked two perfect innings of relief to lock down the win as Lotte lost two straight for the first time in over a month.
Fighters 4, Buffaloes 2
At Kyocera Dome Osaka, Orix’s Daiki Tajima (6-8, 3.69), coming off back-to-back one-run eight-inning starts, lasted 5-1/3 innings. He allowed two first-inning runs on three hits and a walk. Kensuke Kondo broke the ice with a one-out RBI single and Daiki Asama’s two-out knock made it 2-0. Asama singled in another run in the third. Haruki Nishikawa made it 4-0 in the fifth. He doubled to open the inning, took third when Sugimoto mishandled it in right and scored on a Yuki James Nomura single.
Nippon Ham starter Kazuaki Tateno (3-1, 3.12) pitched out of trouble in the first and third. He struck out the side in the fourth and was on the verge of getting out of the fifth when Shuhei Fukuda doubled in a run and scored on Yuma Mune’s triple.
Fighters closer Toshihiro Sugiura allowed two on in the ninth but earned his 21st save.
Swallows 4, BayStars 2
At Yokohama Stadium, Yakult starter Cy Sneed (x-2, 3.93) struck out seven while allowing a run over seven innings. DeNA lefty Kenta Ishida (1-x, 5.73), moved to the bullpen under former manager Alex Ramirez, made his first start in two seasons. He pitched out of trouble in the second, but surrendered the lead in the fourth on Naomichi Nishura’s three-run home run, the third of the year for the Swallows shortstop.
Michael Peoples worked two perfect innings of relief for DeNA, and Kenjiro Tanaka pitched a scoreless seventh before the BayStars got to Sneed for a run on doubles by Tyler Austin and rookie Shugo Maki.
Swallows skipper Shingo Takatsu continued to demonstrate atypical pennant-race managing behavior in this series. Takatsu rested two regulars for the second straight day, giving outfielders Domingo Santana and Norichika Aoki the day off after keeping second baseman Tetsuto Yamada and catcher Yuhei Nakamura on the bench Wednesday.
Yamada restored the Swallows’ three-run lead in the eighth with his 29th home run. In the home half, instead of regular setup man Noboru Shimizu, Takatsu called on lefty Kazuto Taguchi, who delivered a 1-2-3 inning. Instead of closer Scott McGough, Tomoya Hoshi took over in the ninth for his first career save.
The BayStars made good contact off Hoshi, Keita Sano doubling off his Meji University teammate and scoring on Maki’s two-out single. But Yakult’s outfielders made the catches and Hoshi got a fortunate called third strike against Austin, who otherwise had a terrific game that included a great catch off the right-field wall.
Dragons 3, Tigers 3
At Vantelin Dome Nagoya, Robert Suarez, going for his 34th save, blew a two-run lead snapping a streak of 15 straight scoreless appearances. Rookie shortstop Takumu Nakano prevented Suarez from taking the loss by getting a force out on a tough chance in the hole for the first out after three straight hits opened the inning.
With one out, Kohei Fukudome pinch-hit and doubled into the left-field wall, the ball jamming into a gap in the wall’s padding. With one out, Takuya Kinoshita hit into a game-ending double play.
Jefry Marte singled in Koji Chikamoto in the first off Shotaro Kasahara, who allowed a run over six innings. Yusuke Ito opened the Dragons’ sixth with a pinch-hit double and scored on Naomichi Donoue’s pinch-hit sac fly off Tigers rookie Masashi Ito.
Hanshin broke the tie against reliever Katsuki Matayoshi in the eighth. Chikamoto reached on an error and was on third with two outs after a sacrifice and a groundout. Marte walked with first base open. Pinch-runner Ryuhei Obata stole second and both runs scored when Yusuke Oyama singled on a 3-2 pitch.
Giants 5, Carp 0
At Hiroshima’s Mazda Stadium, Yomiuri’s Yuki Takahashi (11-5, 2.98) issued two walks and allowed three hits over six innings and three relievers completed the Giants’ second straight shutout.
Hiroshima native Sho Nakata hit his second home run as a Giant, a two-out two-run shot in the second that would have been worse were it not for a tremendous play from Carp rookie Yuya Shozui in left to rob Zelous Wheeler of extra bases.
An error by Carp starter Shogo Tamamura (2-7, 4.08) allowed Takahashi to reach to open the Giants second and he scored on Hayato Sakamoto’s 18th home run. Wheeler added a sixth-inning solo shot in the sixth to complete the scoring.
Friday’s starting pitchers
Lions vs Marines: MetLife Dome 5:45 pm, 4:45 am EDT
Buffaloes vs Eagles: Kyocera Dome (Osaka) 6 pm, 5 am EDT
Hawks vs Fighters: PayPay Dome 6 pm, 5 am EDT
Giants vs Tigers: Tokyo Dome 5:45 pm, 4:45 am EDT
Swallows vs Dragons: Jingu Stadium 5:30 pm, 4:30 am EDT
BayStars vs Carp: Yokohama Stadium 5:45 pm, 4:45 am EDT