The week started well for the Tigers, though first and second place fell out of reach before September came to an end. Still, one more win in their final two games would all but punch their ticket to the postseason. Unfortunately for them, they would face a Yakult Swallows team that could clinch the pennant on its home turf, and a Hiroshima Carp team whose playoff destiny was fully in its own hands after a season of underachieving. Here’s how the action went down:
Game 1: No doubt the Tigers were at a disadvantage in this one. They were on the road against the top team in the league in a park that rewards big sluggers. The pitcher they hoped would tame the CL’s hitting champ (Kawabata), home run king (Yamada) and RBI leader (Hatakeyama): veteran Minoru Iwata. Early on he gave up a run (to the aforementioned RBI leader, no less), but settled into a nice groove after that. One moment worth mentioning was in the fifth, when he gave up a hit to their starter after a long, hard-fought at bat. This started a mini-rally but did not result in a run for them. Iwata was due up in the sixth, and returned the favor, getting on base with no outs. This could be the Tigers’ chance to tie things up! Alas, they could not. None of the top three hitters could manage anything after his hit, and the inning ended with no threat. Not until the top of the 8th, when Tsuyoshi Nishioka pinch hit a two-out single and Takashi Toritani advanced him to third did the team look to be in a position to tie the game. They did so off the top reliever in the Central (Barnette) as pinch hitter Kentaro Sekimoto drove the first pitch he saw up the middle. All relievers stayed strong through ten, and this game looked like it could end in a tie until Atsushi Nohmi, who came in as a reliever, gave up the winning run, a line drive down the first base line, in the bottom of the eleventh. For the first time since 2001, the Yakult Swallows had won the Central League pennant. Final Score: Swallows 2, Tigers 1.
Game 2: Win this and third place was ours. Tie, and it was ours. Lose, and the Carp would have to still win on Wednesday to steal third place from us. We brought our best pitcher (ERA-wise) to the mound, while they brought their oldest. Shintaro Fujinami looked great through three, but so did Hiroki Kuroda. The wheels fell off the bus in the fourth when Fujinami surrendered four hits (including a two-run home run) and a walk, and the score was 4-0 for the visitors. With a chance to score runs in the fifth, our starter was pulled just one inning short of 200 on the season, but pinch hitter Nishioka hit into an inning-ending double play. The sixth saw yet another rally-killing double play, this time by Mauro Gomez. It took until the ninth inning for the Tigers to get another threat going, but by then the score was 6-0 because Nohmi’s relief appearance resulted in another two-run blast. Kosuke Fukudome singled, as did Matt Murton (in perhaps his final at-bat in Tigers pinstripes), but two straight strikeouts by their closer put an end to the Tigers’ regular season with a humiliating loss, their 17th shutout on the year. Final Score: Carp 6, Tigers 0.
Postgame Ceremony: Nineteen-year veteran Kentaro Sekimoto announced late in September that this would be his final season of professional baseball. He is tied for third longest service in team history. The ceremony started with a farewell speech, and was followed by a presentation of flowers by the opposing team (former teammate and good friend Takahiro Arai), a Tigers teammate (captain Toritani), and Sekimoto’s two sons. It was a highly emotional time, and was only dampened by the team’s loss earlier in the night. Fans sent him off well, and his words and the tribute paid to him took some of the sting off the loss.
The Prognosis: Now the Tigers need to depend on 50-year old Masahiro Yamamoto of the Dragons to out-duel Carp ace Kenta Maeda in Hiroshima on Wednesday night. Should the Carp lose or tie, the Hanshin Tigers keep third place and advance to the Climax Series this weekend. Otherwise, the season is over and it will be time to regroup for 2016 with a new manager and probably quite a few new players and coaches as well.