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Rakuten Eagles Win the NPB Interleague Title with a 5-3 Victory Over Hiroshima Carp

The Rakuten Eagles got off to a slow start this season but came together as a team during interleague play under first-year manager Toshiaki Imae.

Daichi Suzuki hit a two-run homer on Sunday, June 16 as the Rakuten Eagles beat the Hiroshima Carp 5-3 to win Nippon Professional Baseball's interleague competition for the first time in the team's 20-year history.

Suzuki connected for a two-run blast in the bottom of the third inning at Rakuten Mobile Park Miyagi to give the Eagles a 5-0 lead with his first home run of the season.

"It couldn't have come at a better time," Suzuki said. "I surprised myself  when I hit it and I'm glad that we rewarded all the fans that came out today with this win."

Rakuten Eagles
Rakuten Eagles first baseman Daichi Suzuki slugs a two-run homer in the third inning on June 16. (©SANKEI)

A former Chiba Lotte Marine, Suzuki has now hit a home run against all 12 teams in NPB.

Hayato Yuge, one of seven Rakuten pitchers to take the mound on Sunday, picked up the win after coming on in relief of starter Tomotaka Matsui and pitching one scoreless inning.

Rakuten Eagles
Rakuten Eagles starter Tomotaka Matsui pitches to a Hiroshima Carp batter on June 16. (©SANKEI)

Rakuten, officially known as the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, finished interleague games with a record of 13 wins and five losses, just one game ahead of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, who lost by a score of 4-1 against the Hanshin Tigers on the final day of interleague games.

With the title clinched by Rakuten, Pacific League teams have now won 14 times with the Central League claiming the championship only five times.

Rakuten Eagles
Rakuten Eagles manager Toshiaki Imae is in his first season in charge. (©SANKEI)

Rakuten Eagles Improve During Interleague Play

Prior to the start of interleague games, few would have predicted the Eagles would come out on top.

When interleague play started on May 28, the Eagles were in next-to-last place in the PL standings with a record of 18 wins, 26 losses and one tie. That left them 12 games behind the front-running Hawks.

First year manager Toshiaki Imae gave credit to his players' determination and ability to come together as a team.

"Everyone played a part," Imae said. "It was a complete team effort but if I had to single out one aspect I would say our pitchers really came through for us during the interleague games."

Masaru Fujii is their top starter with a 5-1 record and a 2.61 ERA with 29 strikeouts in eight games, Takahiro Norimoto has 16 saves, second in the PL, while Tomohito Sakai has 18 holds, also second best in the PL.

Rakuten Eagles
In their 20th season, the Rakuten Eagles won their first interleague title. (©SANKEI)

A Look at the Eagles' Interleague Success 

Given how their season had started, their interleague campaign got off in predictable fashion with a 6-1 loss to the Yokohama DeNA BayStars.

But that was the last time the Eagles would look so vulnerable. They took the next two games from the BayStars by scores of 4-0 and 6-5 and never looked back.

After taking two out of three from the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in their next series, the Eagles then completed a sweep of the Hanshin Tigers at Koshien Stadium.

It was the first time in the team's 20-year history that they swept a series at historic Koshien Stadium.

After the sweep of Hanshin, Rakuten would go on to win five of its next six games, including a three-game sweep of the Yomiuri Giants completed on June 13.

As of June 16, the Eagles had moved up to fourth in the PL standings with a 31-31-1 record and were just 1½ games behind the Marines for the final playoff spot.

"There are many tough games ahead of us within our league," Imae said. "But hopefully we can carry this momentum over for the rest of the season and continue to make progress."

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Author: Jim Armstrong

The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for over 25 years. You can find his articles on SportsLook.

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