Streaking Giants have their sights set on first place

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Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.

This safety alert, or a version of it, appears on the passenger mirrors of vehicles in several countries, including the United States.

It is a warning that the Hanshin Tigers should heed. They may still be at the top of the Central League, but the Yomiuri Giants – now only 2½ games back and gaining traction – are taking a run.

It’s before the All-Star and Olympic breaks, and there’s a lot of baseball to play. However, last week was a reminder that the Giants remain a clear and present threat to win the third pennant in a row.

The kyojin are hot. They beat the Tigers on June 19-20, winning all five games – two against the DeNA BayStars and a Road series against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows – they played last week to extend their winning streak to seven.

Yomiuri’s starters had a good week without ace Tomoyuki Sugano, with none allowing more than two earned runs. With the return of Shun Yamaguchi, who has been fielding in North America since 2020, staff received a mid-season boost.

“Our starters are leading and that was very important for us,” said manager Tatsunori Hara on Sunday.

Yamaguchi returned to the Giants on Wednesday with 5⅔ innings against the BayStars, his former club. He allowed a run and stroked five.

“It’s been about two years since I wore the Giants uniform,” said Yamaguchi. “I enjoyed the pitching while being welcomed so warmly by everyone today.”

Yoshihiro Maru isn’t returning from his absence, but the outfielder’s bat is back after breaking in in May. Maru caught fire last week, finishing 8-for-18 with three homers and eight RBIs in five games.

The veteran outfielder beats 0.372 with four homers and 10 RBIs in 12 games this month after hitting 0.229 with three homers and five RBIs in 22 games in May.

Yomiuri has an inexpensive matchup this week, with last-placed Hiroshima Carp coming to a series of three games at the Tokyo Dome that begins Tuesday.

The Tigers, meanwhile, left Nagoya with two wins against the Chunichi Dragons early last week but were swept home by the BayStars in a weekend streak.

“The Giants are in good shape right now,” Tigers manager Akihiro Yano was quoted as saying by The Mainichi Shimbun on Sunday. “We can’t afford to lose even if we don’t face them.”

A leaky bullpen helped sink Hanshin into a loss to the Dragons on Wednesday, and a couple of defensive misses behind pitcher Yuki Nishi contributed to the BayStars loss on Friday.

Rookie slugger Teruaki Sato also suddenly went unplugged in the middle of the week and walked flawlessly in 15 straight at-bats at one point before a double in the ninth on Sunday.

Sato wasn’t the only one. The Tigers looked great on the record in 2021 but only managed more than two runs twice last week. Cleanup Batter Yusuke Oyama was only 3-for-13 with no RBIs on the DeNA series.

Elsewhere in the CL, the third-placed Swallows swept the carp before being swept by the Giants. In the lower half of the league, the Dragons were 2-3-1, the BayStars 3-2 and the Carp finished 1-4-1.

In the Pacific League, the Orix Buffaloes cooled down a bit after joining last week. The Buffaloes started with a win over the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and won two more against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters before hitting a hook.

The club’s winning streak of 11 decisions was halted on Thursday when starter Hirotoshi Masui was marked for five runs in five innings in a 5-2 loss to the Fighters. The Buffaloes then lost to the Seibu Lions and were tied in the next game in this series. However, they ended the week in style, beating the Lions 10-0 at the Kyocera Dome.

Orix, who had risen to first place for the first time since July 2014, ended the week in a draw with the Eagles at the top of the table.

The Eagles lost their first two games last week before recording four straight wins, including a weekend sweep of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. Near Yuki Matsui rallied three saves a week, bringing his total to the top of the standings of 21. Matsui is a candidate to replace the injured Kota Nakagawa in Japan’s Olympic team.

Elsewhere in the PL, the Hawks, currently third, were 2-3-1 last week, the Lions and Chiba Lotte Marines were both 2-2-1, and the Fighters lost four of their five games.

It’s tight in the Pa League, with only four games separating the top five teams, which start on Monday.

In need of relief

Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo hinted that pitcher Shuta Ishikawa could be in the bullpen for a stint on Friday, according to Nikkan Sports.

Ishikawa ended the lead in the Pacific League with the same number of points in 2020, but is going through a difficult phase in 2021. Ishikawa has lost five of his last six starts, including on Friday when he allowed four runs over five innings against the Eagles.

Lock up

Veteran Lions Takumi Kuriyama approaches the home stretch to climb Mount 2,000.

Kuriyama had five hits last week, leaving him 1,972 in his career. He is now 28 hits away from becoming the 54th NPB player – and the fourth active player – to hit 2,000 in Japan.

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