It must have been getting lonely at the top. The Hanshin Tigers were the lone Central League team with a winning record heading into the last series of June, and they were riding a 7-game undefeated streak that stretched back to the middle of the month. Their best hitters were heating up, and their starters were getting the job done. This was the team fans were waiting to see all season! Could they keep it up as they started the summer with a 6-game road trip to the Kanto area?
Game 1: The big story was whether or not ironman Takashi Toritani was alright. After getting beaned in the back last week, his health was in question and his slump at the plate prompted Wada to slide him down the order to seventh. He responded with four hits in four at-bats, including opening the score in the 4th inning with a 2-run double off the left-center wall. His final hit of the game was an infield hit down the right field line. He beat the throw to first, but because of poor defense by the Swallows, a third Tigers run crossed the plate, tying the score with less than two innings to go. Starter Minoru Iwata continued to struggle with control and concentration at the plate, particularly the third time through the opponents’ order, and he was pulled before he could complete the sixth. He allowed 3 runs on 7 hits and 2 walks. Unfortunately for the Tigers, their most consistent reliever to date, Shinobu Fukuhara, fell apart and could not keep the game tied in the bottom of the eighth. He immediately put himself in a bad place by allowing a leadoff hit, a stolen base and a walk. One out later, he allowed two more hits, and was lucky to get out of the inning with just a one-run deficit, as two Swallows baserunners got tagged out on the base paths. The Tigers could not mount a rally in the ninth, and their winning streak came to an end. Final Score: Swallows 4, Tigers 3.
Game 2: For the first time since June 13th, the Tigers were forced to use one of their “fringe starters” as Yuta Iwasada took the mound. The 2013 1st round pick has been trying to prove himself capable and ready to join the rotation permanently, but struggled in the third inning of this one, giving up three runs and leaving the rest of the work to a shaky bullpen. Youngster Hiroaki Saiuchi, who pitched 2 2/3 innings of clean ball against Hiroshima to preserve a tie last week, looked to do the same here but instead lost his control in the fifth. Kazuya Takamiya also proved Wada’s lefty-vs-lefty theory wrong on this night, and after six innings of work, the birds had put six runs on the board. For the Tigers’ part, Matt Murton continued his stellar play with a solo shot in the second, and also made a brilliant catch at the wall later in the game. Starting catcher Ryutaro Umeno tied the game at 3 in the fifth with a 2-run blast, but it was all for naught. Down 6-3 late, pinch hitter Ryota Imanari singled but had his work negated by a Keisuke Kanoh double play. This was followed by a Mauro Gomez home run (his 10th on the year) but since it was just a solo shot, the team remained down two. In the ninth, Ryota Arai reached base on an error, and pinch hitter (what?) Kosuke Fukudome nearly justified his recent deification with a deep blast that barely missed tying the game. With runners on second and third and just one out, the team had a legitimate chance to tie the game, even win it, but a Katsuhiko Saka grounder to the mound and a Kohei Shibata fly out ended the game. Final Score: Swallows 6, Tigers 4.
Game 3: Where Wednesday called for a righty-heavy lineup (the Swallows started a lefty), Thursday begged Wada to do the opposite. He trotted out six lefties to face a right-handed pitcher, even giving Imanari the leadoff role, and putting Fumiya Araki in the two-slot (benching Hiroki Uemoto after his poor fielding and hitting on Wednesday). Toritani stayed down in sixth, and Shibata got the start in center, batting seventh. Certainly a very different lineup than the ones that had recorded nine or more hits in nine straight games. It showed, as the team generated just five hits (three from the recently dependable cleanup hitters), and the pitching staff once again got pounded, completing the sweep in style. Atsushi Nohmi lasted just 4 innings, taxing the bullpen even further, and Hiroya Shimamoto allowed 5 runs in the eighth, ensuring him a spot on the farm team from tomorrow. Final Score: Swallows 10, Tigers 1.
And with that, the Yakult Swallows find themselves in first. Four different teams have occupied the top spot now since the end of May, and once again no Central League team is over the .500 mark. Here are the current standings.