Young Guns: The Japan Series features young pitching talent

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The history of this year’s Japan Series after two games has begun.

A quartet of young stars, all under 25, dominated the Kyocera Dome Osaka at the weekend and made life extremely difficult for the line-ups that are used to scoring many runs.

The starters for the Orix Buffaloes and Tokyo Yakult Swallows, who split the first two games, combined 29⅔ innings and allowed only three runs between them.

It’s hard to ask more of young pitchers making their debut in the Japan Series.

Buffalo ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto is currently the most heralded of the four, leading the NPB in most of the major pitching categories during the regular season, in addition to pitching for Japan at the Tokyo Olympics this summer. As for the other three, the Swallows’ Keiji Takahashi has a career ERA of 4.26 over four seasons – he was 4-1 with an ERA of 2.87 that year – while Yakult’s Yasunobu Okugawa and Orix’s Hiroya Miyagi both have Are 20 and attended a couple of high schools years ago.

None of them faded under the bright lights over the weekend.

“It was more tense than seeing it on TV,” said Miyagi. “But there were different people who helped me a lot.”

Buffalo Yoshinobu Yamamoto (right) walks back to the dugout with catcher Kenya Wakatsuki during Saturday’s first game. | KYODO

Takahashi, the group’s old man at 24, had the standout performance with a five-hit shutout – the first of his career – in Game 2 to help the Swallows, with a 2-0 win on Sunday even in the series to pass.

“It was really good,” said Takahashi. “I could stand on the hill from the first moment and hold them down for nine innings.”

Takahashi threw the first Japan Series shutout since Takayuki Kishi for the Seibu Lions in 2008, becoming the 13th pitcher to win his debut without allowing a run.

He had a good fastball and was keeping the Buffaloes off their timing with his other pitches, allowing five hits and punching five. After the final of the ninth, he let out a great scream and punch.

“I think that’s the result of all his work,” said Swallows manager Shingo Takatsu.

The Swallows eventually scored for Takahashi in eighth place on an RBI single from veteran Norichika Aoki, and the young left-hander then scored the last six outs to finish the game.

“I faced each batsman individually and it’s good that I was able to beat up to ninth place,” he said.

Miyagi was on the other side of that pitcher’s duel in Game 2, pulling back the first 16 thugs he faced before eventually accepting the loss, despite only allowing a single 7⅔ frame run, hitting seven and walking one stroke.

“I think if we had scored first it could have been different,” said Buffaloes coach Satoshi Nakajima. “He could have served more freely. I was concerned that he might pitch on this stage because he hasn’t pitched in a month (Miyagi’s last start was October 21st), but he’s done enough. “

No left-hander allowed an extra base hit.

Swallows starter Yasunobu Okugawa will play during the first game of the Japan Series at Kyocera Dome Osaka on Saturday.  |  KYODO
Swallows starter Yasunobu Okugawa will play during the first game of the Japan Series at Kyocera Dome Osaka on Saturday. | KYODO

Their duel came one evening after a blockbuster match between 23-year-old Yamamoto and Okugawa.

Yamamoto allowed a run for six innings and had the weekend’s highest strikeout total at nine, despite the Swallows’ success in increasing his pitch count. Okugawa went one more inning, allowing only one run.

The game was only decided when both starters were on the bench, with the Buffaloes collecting three runs for a 4-3 win in the ninth run.

Former NPB star Daisuke Matsuzaka, who retired later this season, was a guest analyst while televising Game 2 and praised Okugawa’s performance.

“He could be the No. 1 of his generation,” said Matsuzaka.

Overall, the Yakult duo outperformed its Orix colleagues. Okugawa and Takahashi combined to run for 16 innings, while Yamamoto and Miyagi ran two for 13⅔ frames.

It came as no surprise that these four were up to date for their teams in their first two games, but moving to the Tokyo Dome for the next three competitions comes with an air of mystery.

The managers didn’t agree to name the starting pitchers for the next day during the Japan Series – a premiere since 2017 – so everyone has to guess about the starters until just before each game.

The Swallows have two veterans waiting in the wings in Yasuhiro “Ryan” Ogawa and 41-year-old Masanori Ishikawa, both contestants who will hit the hill during the series. Both pitchers started for the Swallows during the 2015 Japan Series.

Orix has two other left-handers who might see the hill at some point. Daiki Tajima threw six goalless frames against the Chiba Lotte Marines in the final stages of the Pacific League Climax Series, and Sachiya Yamasaki made 21 starts and was 8-10 with 3.56 ERA in 116 ⅓ innings.

The buffalo can also have Taisuke Yamaoka in their back pocket. Yamamoka, a two-time All-Star, had right elbow surgery in September but was listed on the Japan Series, has trained with the club and has the potential to be a wildcard at some point in a series that has it so far largely defined by pitching.

Buffalo newcomer Hiroya Miyagi only allowed one run on his Japan Series debut.  |  KYODO
Buffalo newcomer Hiroya Miyagi only allowed one run on his Japan Series debut. | KYODO

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