STAFF WRITER – The story of this year’s Japan Series after two games has been starting pitching.
A quartet of young stars, all under 25, dominated Kyocera Dome Osaka over the weekend, each making life extremely hard for lineups accustomed to scoring lots of runs.
The starters for the Orix Buffaloes and Tokyo Yakult Swallows, who split the first two games, combined to throw 29⅔ innings and allowed just three runs between them.
It’s hard to ask for more from young pitchers making their Japan Series debuts.
Buffaloes ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto is the most heralded of the four at this point, leading NPB in most major pitching categories during the regular season, in addition to pitching for Japan at the Tokyo Olympics this summer. As for the other three, the Swallows’ Keiji Takahashi has a 4.26 career ERA in four seasons — he was 4-1 with a 2.87 ERA this year — while Yakult’s Yasunobu Okugawa and Orix’s Hiroya Miyagi are both 20 and were in high school a few years ago.
None of them wilted under the bright lights over the weekend.
“It was more tense than watching on TV,” Miyagi said. “But there were various people who helped me out a lot.”
Takahashi, the old man of the group at 24, had the standout performance with a five-hit shutout — the first of his career — in Game 2 to help the Swallows pull even in the series with a 2-0 victory on Sunday.
“It was really good,” Takahashi said. “I was able to stand on the mound from the first and hold them down for nine innings.”
Takahashi threw the first Japan Series shutout since Takayuki Kishi for the Seibu Lions in 2008 and became the 13th pitcher to win his debut without allowing a run.
He had a good fastball and kept the Buffaloes off their timing with his other pitches, allowing five hits and striking out five. After the final out of the ninth, he let out a big yell and a fist pump.
“I think this is the result of all the work he’s done,” Swallows manager Shingo Takatsu said.
The Swallows finally scored for Takahashi in the eighth on an RBI single by veteran Norichika Aoki, and the young left-hander then recorded the final six outs to finish off the game.
“I was facing each batter one at a time and it’s good I was able to pitch until the ninth,” he said.
Miyagi was on the other side of that pitcher’s duel in Game 2, retiring the first 16 batters he faced before ultimately taking the loss despite allowing just a single run over 7⅔ frames, striking out seven and walking one batter.
“I think if we had scored first It could have gone differently,” Buffaloes manager Satoshi Nakajima said. “He could have pitched more freely. I was worried whether he could pitch on this stage because he hasn’t pitched in a month (Miyagi’s last start was Oct. 21) but he did enough.”
Neither lefty allowed an extra-base hit.
Their duel came one night after a blockbuster matchup between the 23-year-old Yamamoto and Okugawa.
Yamamoto allowed one run over six innings and posted the weekend’s highest strikeout total with nine, though the Swallows were successful in running up his pitch count. Okugawa went one inning further and also allowed just a single run.
The game wasn’t decided until both starters were in the dugout, with the Buffaloes rallying for three runs in the ninth for a 4-3 victory.
Former NPB great Daisuke Matsuzaka, who retired at the end of this season, was a guest analyst during the Game 2 broadcast on television and praised Okugawa’s performance.
“He could be the No. 1 of his generation,” Matsuzaka said.
Overall, the Yakult duo outpitched their Orix counterparts. Okugawa and Takahashi combined to allow one run over 16 innings, while Yamamoto and Miyagi yielded two over 13⅔ frames.
It was no surprise these four toed the rubber for their teams in the first two games, but the shift to Tokyo Dome for the next three contests comes with an air of mystery.
The managers did not agree to name the next day’s starting pitchers during the Japan Series — a first since 2017 — so everyone will be left guessing about the starters until shortly before each game.
The Swallows have a pair of veterans waiting in the wings in Yasuhiro “Ryan” Ogawa and 41-year-old Masanori Ishikawa, both candidates to take the mound during the series. Both pitchers made starts for the Swallows during the 2015 Japan Series.
Orix has two more left-handers who could see the mound at some point. Daiki Tajima threw six scoreless frames against the Chiba Lotte Marines in the final stage of the Pacific League Climax Series, and Sachiya Yamasaki made 21 starts and was 8-10 with a 3.56 ERA in 116 ⅓ innings.
The Buffaloes may also have Taisuke Yamaoka in their back pocket. Yamamoka, a two-time All-Star, had surgery on his right elbow in September but was included on the Japan Series roster, has been practicing with the club and has the potential to be a wild card at some point in a series that has so far been largely defined by pitching.
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Source: The Japan Times