Gentlemen, we have climax
Japan’s Central and Pacific Leagues continued to march to the same weird drummer on Friday, as both of their playoffs final stages finished in three games, with each league champion winning 3-0-1, thanks to a one-win advantage, shutout wins in Games 1 and 2, and the rule that higher-seeded teams advance if series end in ties.
Both the CL’s Yakult Swallows and the PL’s Orix Buffaloes came from behind to end their games in ties, the Buffaloes tying in dramatic fashion on a walk-off “sayonara” tie, something I honestly thought I’d never see.
If we’re going to call NPB’s Japan Series quarterfinals and semifinals “Climax Series” then I guess we have to say that the Yomiuri Giants and Lotte Marines both climaxed on Friday, leaving the Yakult Swallows and Orix Buffaloes as the last teams standing, or each league’s last erect member if you will.
The Swallows became the second CL team to clinch a Climax Series stage on a tie. The Orix Buffaloes, who never reached the final stage before, are only the second franchise in either league to go undefeated in its first three final stage games. The Chunichi Dragons clinched the best-of-five 2007 CL final stage with three straight wins on the road and won the 2008 opener to improve to 4-0.
The Buffaloes’ tie made them the first PL team to win a CS stage in a tie, although that’s only true because until 2011, NPB’s rules were even stupider than the current ones. NPB, which has always required all teams to complete all their regular-season games regardless of how meaningless those games are – some even taking place AFTER the start of the Japan Series in years past – held the same kind of anal-retentive view in the Climax Series.
So in 2011, after the SoftBank Hawks eliminated the Seibu Lions and clinched their spot in the Japan Series by preventing Seibu from scoring in the 12th inning of their tie game, the Hawks, with nothing to play for, were required to bat in the home half, and actually won the game. One whiff of that nonsense was enough for even NPB executives to come to their senses.
So now we get Orix and Yakult. These franchises have met twice before, in 1978, when the Yakult Swallows won in seven games with the help of one of the most famous home runs in series history, and in 1995 when the Swallows, managed by Katsuya Nomura, stuffed Ichiro Suzuki and the Orix BlueWave in five games, a series in which the current managers, Orix’s Satoshi Nakajima and Yakult’s Shingo Takatsu, both played. The Swallows last played in the series in 2015, when they lost to SoftBank, and last won in 2021, when they beat the Kintetsu Buffaloes in five.
Like the 1978 series, when the Swallows’ home games were played at the Giants’ home park, Korakuen Stadium, Games 3, 4 and 5 will take place at Tokyo Dome because Jingu Stadium will be unavailable. While Games 1 and 2 will be at Kyocera Dome in Osaka, which Orix occupied after their 2004 merger with Kintetsu, Games 6 and 7 will be played at the BlueWave’s old home, Hotto Motto Field Kobe.
Friday’s Foreplay Series games
Buffaloes 3, Marines 3
At Kyocera Dome Osaka, Yuya Oda pulled back a fake bunt and slashed a ninth-inning game-ending walk-off RBI single against PL saves leader Naoya Masuda, ending a terrific see-saw game.
Lotte took a 1-0 lead in the third against rookie Soichiro Yamazaki on a Takashi Ogino single, a Koshiro Wada double, and a Shogo Nakamura sac fly. Through five innings, Marines starter Daiki Iwashita had allowed only a single to scrappy Orix leadoff hitter Shuhei Fukuda and an intentional walk to Orix’s Clark Kent, Masataka Yoshida.
Fukuda reached on a flare single with one out in the sixth and the game changed in a few heartbeats. Iwashita missed up in the zone with a hanging first-pitch forkball and Yuma Mune put a dent in the third-deck facing in right field for a two-run home run.
Leonys Martin, however, tied it with some fancy base running in the top of the seventh. He singled, took second on a routine fly to left and scored on Toshiya Sato’s two-out pinch-hit single. Shogo Nakamura took Tyler Higgins deep with one out in the eighth to give Lotte a lifeline, but the right-hander stranded two, and Hirotoshi Masui of all people, worked a scoreless ninth in an echo of his glory days as closer for the Nippon Ham Fighters.
The Marines appeared headed for a Game 4 with PL saves leader Naoya Masuda on the mound in the home half, but things went south quickly. Takahiro Okada singled on a 1-2 pitch low away and out of the zone. Ryo Adachi swatted a lazy 0-1 fastball above the zone into left. Yuya Oda squared to bunt with first baseman Ryo Miki just 40 feet down the line, pulled the bat back and swatted it past him into right field to end it.
Swallows 2, Giants 2
At Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium, Norichika Aoki was the hero, singling in two seventh-inning runs with two outs and Yakult trailing 1-0 after Yomiuri got six outstanding innings from C.C. Mercedes.
Rubby De La Rosa took over in the seventh. A one-out Jose Osuna single got things rolling. Yakult sacrificed, but De La Rossa was ordered to walk pinch-hitting ace Shingo Kawabata after falling behind 2-0. De La Rosa couldn’t buy a called strike on the corners as he walked Yasutaka Shiomi on a 3-2 pitch to load the bases. Lefty Kota Nakagawa came in and Aoki inside-outed his first pitch over short to put the Swallows in front.
Swallows right-hander Juri Hara appeared to be keeping pace with Mercedes until he was knocked out of the game by a line drive to his wrist with one out in the second. Rookie Yuto Kanakubo worked 3-2/3 innings of relief and was not quite as sharp. He allowed a run on a one-out third-inning walk by Naoki Yoshikawa, a Yoshiyuki Kamei single and a Hayato Sakamoto sac fly.
Two perfect innings of relief from Yakult’s former closer, Taichi Ishiyama, and Albert Suarez, allowed Yakult to come from behind and the game appeared to be in the bag after CL holds leader Noboru Shimizu retired the first two Giants in the eighth.
But after Zelous Wheeler singled off a good pitch, Shimizu walked a batter and bounced a wild pitch to put both runners in scoring position, and former Swallow Taishi Hirooka singled to short to tie it.
But Hiroyuki Nakajima struck out to end the inning, and the Giants, who stranded nine runners, failed to score against Scott McGough in the ninth, their season fittingly ending with Sho Nakata making the final out, striking out as a pinch-hitter.