After leading Japan to gold medal in baseball at the Tokyo Olympics, Tetsuto Yamada and Munetaka Murakami found the perfect encore.
The two power hitters are behind a surprising run of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, in which the Central League team takes first place, in front of the spending-heavy Yomiuri Giants and the top-class Hanshin Tigers.
Few would have predicted that the swallows would only stay where they are for just over three weeks in the 2021 season.
The multi-year outsiders took last place in the overall standings in 2020 and faced the prospect of another long season at or near the end. But after finishing fifth in interleague competition with 12 teams in May and early June, Yakult was on the rise, taking first place on Wednesday, September 22, after beating the Yokohama BayStars 2-1 in the Central League.
That win was part of an impressive streak of 13 undefeated games that enabled Yakult to hold their own against their rivals in the Central League.
Yamada and Murakami have contributed significantly to the team’s success.
With a record of 60-44 with 16 draws through Friday October 1, the Swallows are one game ahead of the Tigers and five games ahead of the Giants.
They lead the league in runs scored (543) and are third in home runs (123) and tied in second place in the batting average (0.257). Yakult also has the second lowest ERA (3.45). On the way to the stretch run, Yakult has three games in hand with the Tigers and five in the Giants.
“If you look at the numbers, the swallows are the top three in all categories,” said former Yakult bully Alex Ramirez on his YouTube Rami channel. “The manager [Shingo Takatsu] did a great job. Nobody expected it and if they keep playing like this, they can part with the Tigers and Giants. “
A hard-hitting second baseman, Yamada has long been on the team’s radar in Major League Baseball.
The 29-year-old infielder was one of Japan’s top players at the Summer Olympics where he helped the host country win its first gold medal in Olympic baseball.
He posted a .350 batting average and .600 slugging percentage with seven RBIs in five games in the Olympic tournament.
Yamada beats .274 with 32 homers, 115 hits and 87 RBIs for the Swallows.
From 2014 to 2019, Yamada was one of the biggest stars in Japan with an average of 33 homers and 26 steals per year. His numbers were in decline in 2020 but he has bounced back well this season with good performance metrics.
Ramirez knows a thing or two about hitting in Japan. As the first foreign-born player to record over 2,000 hits, Ramirez also had 380 homers and drove 1272 runs over 13 seasons in the NPB.
Murakami, meanwhile, has put up MVP-type numbers that beat .279 with 118 hits, 38 homers and 101 RBIs.
The 21-year-old infielder was also a key member of the Olympic team, hitting .333 with five hits, a homer and three RBIs.
“Yamada did a great job and Murakami is one of the best hitters in Japanese baseball,” said Ramirez. “I predicted Murakami would hit 40 Homer and he is right there and deserves credit for his 100 RBIs. I am not surprised because Murakami has this ability and he will do so for many years to come. “
Ramirez, who also had a largely successful time as manager of Yokohama DeNa BayStars from 2016 to 20, also praised Yakult outfielder Yasutaka Shiomi, calling him the best lead-off hitter in Japanese baseball.
Shiomi beats .296 with 120 hits, 12 homers, 53 RBIs, and 20 stolen bases.
As Ramirez points out, the Swallows are a complete team and their pitching was as impressive as the batting on this last run.
Pitching people who do a solid job
Takatsu, a former seamstress who spent 12 seasons with the Swallows before a brief stint in Major League Baseball with the Chicago White Sox and New York Mets, has done a superb job with his pitching team.
The pitching team is led by Yasuhiro Ogawa, who is 8-5 with a 4.09 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 19 games. Yasunobu Okugawa also had an outstanding season with an 8-3 record, 3.14 ERA and 81 strikeouts.
Often times, for relief, the swallows turn to Albert Suarez and closer to Scott McGough.
Suarez, a middle helper, is 5-3 with a 3.74 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 15 hill appearances while McGough is 2-2 with a 3.04 ERA, 67 strikeouts and 24 saves in 55 games.
“The Yakult Swallows are a complete team,” said Ramirez. “They’re the best team in the Central League right now, but Hanshin is right behind them and you can’t ignore Yomiuri.”
The Swallows haven’t won the Japan Series championship since 2001. They previously won it all in 1993, 1995 and 1997 when they were led by legendary manager Katsuya Nomura.
Well, Takatsu, who was a member of that great Yakult team when he was still known as “Mr. Zero, ”for not giving up a single run in 11 Japan Series championship games, hopes to bring that magic back to Yakult in the postseason.
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, Forward to JAPAN.