The three-team race for the Central League pennant could come to an end

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Yoshio Itoi, Joe Gunkel and Robert Suarez helped the Hanshin Tigers beat the Yomiuri Giants on Sunday afternoon. Later that night, Munetaka Murakami hit a double homer for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in a 16-0 destruction of the Chunichi Dragons.

Those results left the Swallows and Tigers in a virtual tie for first place in the Central League.

The problem is, they only give out a pennant.

The race for the CL title is as close as it gets, and although the Climax Series doesn’t start until November 6, the final push for the pennant will make it feel like baseball has come too early after the season.

“Everyone has a goal to get to the top,” Itoi said when asked about Hanshin’s mindset during his hero interview. “I’ll do my best in the remaining games so we can throw the manager in the air (to celebrate).”

The first-placed Swallows (59-42-16) lead the Tigers (65-48-7) only with percentage points. Yakult has a profit share of 0.584 versus Hanshin’s 0.575. Both clubs are aiming for their first pennant in several seasons. The Swallows last won in 2015, and the Tigers fans have been waiting since 2005.

The Yomiuri Giants (57-48-17) won the last two CL titles and are four games behind the leaders in third place.

Yakult once brought up the rear in the three-team race before improving the overall standings with an 8-0-4 run since September 14th. Hanshin, who led the league for most of the year, is 4-3-3 over the same range and Yomiuri is 4-5-2.

Murakami stepped up his MVP case during the hot streak, finishing 15-for-46 with five homers and 15 RBIs. The 21-year-old racket is batting .284 overall and tied for the NPB leadership with 38 home runs. Murakami drove his 100th round of the year on Sunday, making him the youngest player in CL history to have completed a 100 RBI season.

“It’s a great achievement,” Swallows manager Shingo Takatsu told reporters after the game. “In the future, we will strive for many more goals.” The Swallows have a lot of firepower outside of Murakami and were surprisingly strong on the hill with a 3.43 team ERA which is second best in the league.

Yakult will be tested in the coming days. The Swallows have a relatively manageable list of series against the DeNA BayStars and Hiroshima Carp this week. However, in the week of October 4th, they’ll be playing a six-game home stand against the Giants and then the Tigers.

Haruto Takahashi’s return could give the Tigers pitching team a big boost. | KYODO

Hanshin tries to get his groove back after falling from first place. The club prevented Yakult from expanding their lead over the weekend by winning two wins and a tie against the Giants at the Tokyo Dome.

“We can’t reach the top unless we beat the strong Giants,” said Itoi.

The return of pitcher Haruto Takahashi could give the club a big boost.

Takahashi only made his season debut on September 8th due to an injury and got off to a shaky start. He has bounced back over his last two outings with 16 consecutive goalless innings – 23 strikeouts and one walk – including a 13 strikeout shutout for the Giants on Saturday.

“I came to the team late, so from now on I will contribute as much as I can,” he said on Saturday.

This is an encouraging sign for a team that has taken a step back up the hill. Hanshin’s 3.92 team ERA in September is the fourth among the six CL clubs, according to Deltagraphs. Yakult is first at 2:35 a.m.

Yomiuri has most of the work to do. The Giants are only 6-11-5 this month and are trending in the wrong direction. The good news is that with an 11 game lead over the Dragons, Kyojin’s place in the Climax series is all but certain.

Giants manager Tatsunori Hara tries to lead his team to the third CL title in a row.  |  KYODO
Giants manager Tatsunori Hara tries to lead his team to the third CL title in a row. | KYODO

Ace Tomoyuki Sugano has had three good starts and could finally get in shape. On the flip slide, CC Mercedes and first half star Yuki Takahashi went in the opposite direction – although Takahashi got off to a good start against the carp on September 23.

The Giants can play offensively against any team, but haven’t pitched that well lately.

Every game will be important on the track and the games of the A-class teams against each other will become even more important in the battle for position. Yakult has 11 games left against the other two, while Hanshin has eight and Yomiuri has nine.

While none of the top three teams is in danger of missing the playoffs, that doesn’t take away any of the excitement of the race. After all, winning the pennant is much better than not winning the pennant.

More specifically, winning the league means a bye into the second phase of the Climax Series and the start of that round with the benefit of victory and the luxury of being able to host every game.

Three teams, one pennant. The calendar may say it’s fall, but the temperature in the upper half of the Central League is still rising.

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