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[ODDS and EVENS] Two Games Turned the Tide for Orix Buffaloes in Japan Series

The 2022 Japan Series champions seized momentum with back-to-back victories at Kyocera Dome in Games 4 and 5, recovering from two losses and a tie.

The Orix Buffaloes celebrate their Japan Series-clinching victory on October 30 at Jingu Stadium. (ⒸSANKEI)

Looking back at the on-field drama of the Japan Series, Games 4 and 5 marked a two-day turning point for the Orix Buffaloes.

First, the Buffaloes edged the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in a 1-0 victory in Game 4 on October 26 at Kyocera Dome, winning despite a meager offensive output of three hits.

Then, the Buffaloes returned to work the next day with the positive vibes of still being very much alive in the best-of-seven series, including an unusual 3-3 tie in Game 2 sandwiched around losses in Games 1 and 3. The latter was a deflating 7-1 defeat.

Orix's path to a championship, its road to recovery, began with a combined pitching effort in Game 4 that slammed the door on the Swallows offense a day after the 2021 NPB champions pounded out 11 hits. Buffaloes manager Satoshi Nakajima made pitching changes at opportune times. And starter Taisuke Yamaoka and relievers Yuki Udagawa, Soichiro Yamazaki and Jacob Waguespack handled their assignments effectively.

Swallows star Tetsuto Yamada delivered the big blow against the Buffaloes in Game 3, smacking a three-run homer to shatter a scoreless tie in the fifth inning. Game 4 was a different story as he was 0-for-3 with a strikeout. Fellow slugger Munetaka Murakami, who led NPB with 56 homers this season, was also hitless in three at-bats, and fanned once.

Shutting out Yamada and Murakami was a key element of the bigger story in Game 4. What else? The Buffaloes handled the pressure of a must-win game and triumphed.

A Sigh of Relief After Game 4

After the final out was recorded at 10:03 PM, I'm sure Nakajima's blood pressure dropped quite a bit. After all, he knew what was at stake for the Buffaloes and couldn't take his eyes off the action ― or wave a magic wand. 

"Yakult has so many excellent hitters that I'm thankful we could keep them off the board," a relieved Nakajima said, according to Kyodo News moments later.

The manager, of course, will forever be grateful to Yutaro Sugimoto for coming through with the hit that decided the outcome of the game, a two-out single in the third inning.

Momentum Swings in Game 5 

Twenty-four hours and 12 minutes after Game 4 wrapped up, the Buffaloes officially declared that the Swallows were in for an all-out fight for the title.

That was the moment Game 5 ended ー on Masataka Yoshida's two-run, walk-off homer in the ninth inning off Swallows closer Scott McGough.

Yoshida, who has hit 133 regular-season homers in his NPB career since joining the Buffaloes in 2016, is expected to pursue opportunities to play for an MLB team in the future. Perhaps as early as next season, Yoshida, 29, will be wearing another team's uniform.

But before contractual issues are sorted out, the euphoria of his game-ending homer on October 27 thrilled thousands of Buffaloes fans, making him an Orix hero forever.

After crossing home plate and celebrating with teammates, Yoshida spoke to reporters, describing his mindset from moments earlier: "I went to the plate just trying to produce my kind of swing."

It was the swing the Buffaloes needed, the swing that carried momentum from Osaka to Tokyo.

A Second Shutout for Buffaloes

Game 6 wasn't a mirror image of Game 4. But the big statistic in both games was the smallest number: 0 ― as in Yakult's run total.

What's more, the Swallows were held to one hit in Game 6 on October 29.

Five Buffaloes pitchers completed the shutout, with starter Sachiya Yamasaki setting the tone by allowing the lone hit in his sterling five innings of work.

The 3-0 triumph at Jingu Stadium was emblematic of Orix's approach all season long: a unified focus.

Japan Series MVP Sugimoto hit a go-ahead single with two outs in the sixth inning for the game's first run. 

In the aftermath of Yakult's Game 6 defeat (Orix's third straight win) and before Game 7 started, the Japan Series narrative reminded me of watching a reigning world champion boxer getting repeatedly hit hard with body shots against the ropes.

Buffaloes Capture the Championship

The big question before Game 7 started at 6:33 PM on October 30 was: Could the Swallows keep alive their title hopes for one more day?

A Game 7 win for the Swallows would've forced an extra game the next day. Many Buffaloes fans had other plans for Halloween ― or wanted to avoid the nerve-wracking possibility of an extra game.

A good omen for Orix fans: The Buffaloes' Ryo Ohta smacked a homer on pitch No. 1 of the game.

Nakajima's squad extended its lead to 5-0 in the fifth. And every run was needed.

The Swallows rallied for four runs in the eighth, but couldn't get the tying run they needed to force the game into extra innings. Waugespack earned his third save of the series, working a scoreless final frame in Orix's 5-4 win.

"Our slogan was we win with everyone, and with everyone together, we became No. 1," Sugimoto was quoted as saying by Kyodo News.

Avenging last season's loss to the Swallows in the Japan Series, Sugimoto summed up the accomplishment this way: "Yakult is such a strong team. Losing last year left us with a bitter taste in our mouths. We were able to get back at them this time, though, and it feels good."

Orix Legend Ichiro Hails 2022 Champs

In 1996, the Orix BlueWave won the Japan Series. Ichiro Suzuki batted .356 that season, his third as an everyday player.

Orix merged with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, another Pacific League team, after the 2004 season.

And more than a quarter century after Ichiro and his teammates won the title, the retired baseball great, who joined the Seattle Mariners in 2001, is one of the most well-known figures in the sport.

Ichiro, who serves as a special assistant to Mariners chairman John Stanton, was stirred with excitement following the Buffaloes' exploits in their championship run.

"Congratulations to all members of the Orix Buffaloes on winning the Japan Series," Ichiro said in a statement. "You responded perfectly to the fans who put their hopes and expectations on you, winning the pennant for the second straight year and becoming champions of Japan. 

"You awakened in me the passionate fervor with which I played 26 years ago as the fans and club alike held dearly to the 'Gambaro Kobe' slogan. I continue to have high hopes for the young players on this team, that they will continue to write themselves into the history books under my ex-teammate, manager Satoshi Nakajima."


Author: Ed Odeven

Follow Ed on JAPAN Forward's [Japan Sports Notebook] here on Sundays, in [Odds and Evens] here during the week, and Twitter @ed_odeven.

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