Three-team race for Central League pennant could end with wire

Yoshio Itoi, Joe Gunkel and Robert Suarez helped the Hanshin Tigers win a point against the Yomiuri Giants on Sunday afternoon. Later that night, Munetaka Murakami hit a two-run homer for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in a 16-0 destruction of the Chunichi Dragons.

Those results left the Swallows and Tigers in a virtual tie for first place in the Central League.

The problem is, they only give out one flag.

The race for the CL title is as close as it gets, and while the Climax series doesn’t start until November 6, the final push for the pennant will make it look like postseason baseball has arrived early.

“Everyone has a goal to get to the top,” Itoi said when asked about Hanshin’s mindset during his hero interview. “I’ll do my best in the remaining games so that we can throw the manager up in the air (to celebrate).”

The Swallows (59-42-16) are ahead of the Tigers (65-48-7) by several percentage points. Yakult has a winning percentage of 0.584 versus 0.575 for Hanshin. Both clubs are chasing their first pennant in several seasons. The Swallows last won in 2015, and Tigers fans have been waiting since 2005.

The Yomiuri Giants (57-48-17) have won the last two CL titles and are four games behind the leaders in third place.

Yakult once brought up the rear in the three-team race before rising to the standings with an 8-0-4 streak since September 14. Hanshin, who has led the league for most of the year, is 4-3. -3 over the same length and Yomiuri is 4-5-2.

Murakami strengthened his MVP record during the hot streak, passing 15 for 46 with five homers and 15 RBIs. The 21-year-old slugger hits 0.284 overall and is tied for the lead in the NPB with 38 homers. Murakami completed his 100th run of the year on Sunday, making him the youngest player in CL history to post a 100 RBI season.

“It’s a great achievement,” Swallows manager Shingo Takatsu told reporters after the game. “There will be a lot more goals to aim for in the future.” The Swallows have a lot of firepower outside of Murakami and have been surprisingly powerful on the mound with a Team ERA of 3.43 which is the second best in the league.

Yakult will be tested in the coming days. The Swallows have a relatively manageable roster this week, with a streak against the DeNA Bay Stars and Hiroshima Carp. The week of Oct. 4, however, will see them play a six-game homestand with playoffs against the Giants and then the Tigers.

Haruto Takahashi's return could give the Tigers pitching staff a boost.  |  KYODO
Haruto Takahashi’s return could give the Tigers pitching staff a big boost. | KYODO

Hanshin tries to find his rhythm after losing first place. The club prevented Yakult from extending their lead over the weekend by scoring two wins and tying one against the Giants at the Tokyo Dome.

“We can’t get to the top unless we beat the mighty Giants,” Itoi said.

The return of pitcher Haruto Takahashi could give the club a boost.

Takahashi didn’t make his season debut until Sept. 8, due to injury, and had a shaky start. He’s rebounded with 16 straight scoreless innings – with 23 strikeouts and one walkout – in his last two outings, including a 13-strikeout shutout for the Giants on Saturday.

“I joined the team late so I’m just going to contribute as much as I can from now on,” he said on Saturday.

It’s an encouraging sign for a team that has taken a step back on the mound. Hanshin’s 3.92 team ERA in September is fourth among the six CL clubs, per Deltagraphs. Yakult is first at 2.35.

Yomiuri has the most work to do. The Giants are only 6-11-5 this month and are heading in the wrong direction. The good news is that with an 11 game lead over the Dragons, Kyojin’s place in the Climax series is almost assured.

Giants manager Tatsunori Hara is trying to guide his team to a third consecutive CL title.  |  KYODO
Giants manager Tatsunori Hara is trying to guide his team to a third consecutive CL title. | KYODO

Ace Tomoyuki Sugano had three good starts and could finally get back in shape.On the flip slide, CC Mercedes and first-half star Yuki Takahashi went in the opposite direction – although Takahashi had a quality start against the Carp in September. 23

The Giants can take on any team offensively, but haven’t pitched as well lately.

Every game will be important down the home stretch and the Class A teams’ matches against each other will take on added significance as they scramble for position. Yakult still has 11 games to play against the other two, while Hanshin has eight and Yomiuri has nine.

While none of the top three teams are likely to miss the playoffs, that doesn’t take away from the excitement of the race. Winning the pennant, after all, is much better than not gaining the pennant.

More concretely, winning the league means a pass to the second leg of the Climax series and starting that round with a one-win advantage and the luxury of hosting every game.

Three teams, one pennant. The calendar may say fall is here, but the temperature continues to rise in the upper half of the Central League.

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