Keiji Takahashi pitched a complete-game shutout and Norichika Aoki drove in the go-ahead run as the Tokyo Yakult Swallows defeated the Orix Buffaloes 2-0 on Sunday, November 21 to even the best-of-seven Japan Series at one game apiece.
After Saturday’s 4-3 sayonara loss to the Pacific League champion Buffaloes, the Central League champion Swallows were eager to even the series heading back to Tokyo and that’s exactly what Yakult manager Shingo Takatsu got.
“Like yesterday’s game, we knew it would be fairly low scoring,” Takatsu said. “Takahashi pitched a great game and Aoki came through with a clutch hit. We managed to get a split and are heading back to Tokyo feeling pretty good about things.”
The game started out as a classic pitcher’s duel between Orix starter Hiroya Miyagi and Takahashi, two of the best young lefties in the game.
Miyagi was working on a perfect game until giving up a single to Naomichi Nishiura in the sixth inning.
Nishiura reached on the first walk issued by Miyagi in the eighth and it proved costly for Orix. He advanced to second on a single to left by Yasutaka Shiomi, then scored on Aoki’s single, a little flare to right-center over the head of the second baseman.
The Swallows added an insurance run in the top of the ninth on Jose Osuna’s single to right that was bobbled by right fielder Yutaro Sugimoto, allowing Hiyu Motoyama to score from second.
Takahashi was equally impressive as Miyagi but got better as the game went on.
He didn’t surrender a hit after the fifth inning and came out to pitch the ninth despite exceeding his regular-season high for number of pitches.
In the ninth, Takahashi retired the heart of the Orix batting order, getting Masataka Yoshida to ground out, Sugimoto to fly out and Adam Jones on a strikeout to end the game.
“I pitched with a lot of purpose,” Takahashi said. “Aoki came through with a timely hit that was huge for us and I was determined to take the mound in the ninth and close it out. After yesterday, we knew we had to get a win today.”
Takahashi struck out five, gave up five hits and issued two walks in a 133-pitch effort.
Miyagi took the loss after giving up one run on five hits over 7⅔ innings. He struck out seven over 112 pitches.
Orix reliever Cesar Vargas, who worked the ninth, gave up the other run.
The 2021 Japan Series is a rare showdown between two teams that went from worst to first. Both teams finished dead last in their respective leagues last season.
The last time Orix reached the Japan Series was 1996 when a youthful Ichiro Suzuki led the team ー then known as the BlueWave ー to the title.
The Swallows have a little more postseason pedigree. Their last appearance in the Japan Series was in 2015 when they went down four games to one against the powerhouse Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.
The Swallows won the Japan Series in 2001 when they beat none other than the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes four games to one.
Japan Series Notes
The series now shifts to Tokyo for Games 3, 4 and 5 starting on Tuesday, November 23 after a travel day on Monday. But the games won’t be played at Yakult’s home park Jingu Stadium. Because of a scheduling conflict, the three games will be played at Tokyo Dome, the home of crosstown rivals the Yomiuri Giants.
Should the series go to a Game 6, it will be played in Hotto Motto Field Kobe as would a Game 7 if necessary. The Buffaloes play some regular-season games there but their usual home is Kyocera Dome.
The TV broadcast for Sunday’s game was a star-studded affair with former MLB and NPB stars Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kosuke Fukudome providing color commentary in the booth.
The 39-year-old Aoki is playing in his second stint for the Swallows. He also played for the Tokyo-based team beginning with his rookie season in 2004. In between there were stints in MLB with the Milwaukee Brewers, the Kansas City Royals, the San Francisco Giants, the Seattle Mariners, Houston Astros, Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets.
Author: Jim Armstrong
The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for more than 25 years. You can find his articles here, on JAPAN Forward.