Baseball: Murakami duel might be bittersweet ending for Yamamoto

Rookie Shoki Murakami added more laurels to his sparkling season as he outdueled fellow 25-year-old Yoshinobu Yamamoto to win Saturday's Japan Series opener 8-0 in what might have been the Orix Buffaloes ace's last game in Japan.

Yamamoto, who led the Pacific League in ERA, strikeouts, wins and winning percentage the past three seasons, is a likely candidate to be posted to MLB this year, and eventually will be looking forward to bigger and better things despite losing Japan Series Game 1 for the second straight season.

Saturday marked the second time he had gone head-to-head against Murakami, after winning a 2-0 pitchers' duel in interleague, and now Yamamoto, who also won a gold medal as Japan's ace at 2021's Tokyo Olympics, is hoping for at least one more battle.

"This was a critical game, so losing it feels huge," Yamamoto said. "I might have one more game left in this series so I want to prepare for that."

On Friday, Tigers manager Akinobu Okada said the game would be a chance for his right-hander to get some payback, and he simply dealt, allowing two hits and one walk while striking out four over seven innings.

When Murakami did surrender a hit, a booming fly off the outermost ring suspended from Kyocera Dome Osaka's ceiling for a fifth-inning leadoff double, he pitched out of a two-on one-out jam by retiring former MLB star Marwin Gonzalez, who twice barely missed extra-bases with foul drives and flied out after fouling off six straight two-strike pitches.

"All of a sudden, I was in hot water, but I wasn't worried about giving up runs as much as keeping them from catching up," Murakami said. "It wasn't about keeping them scoreless."

"That I got the win was all due to the hitters putting runs on the board and the fielders making the plays."

Like Yamamoto, Murakami is looking forward to a bright future. He burst on Japan's big league scene this year like a thunderclap after two seasons of leading the Western League in ERA for the Hanshin Tigers' minor league farm club.

On April 12, the right-hander was pulled from his start against the Yomiuri Giants at Tokyo Dome for a pinch-hitter after seven perfect innings. After going 10-6 and leading the Central League in ERA, Murakami is now the top candidate to win CL's Rookie of the Year Award.

Orix manager Satoshi Nakajima, himself a former catcher, credited Murakami with taking what the umpire gave him.

"He did an outstanding job of working low in the zone and getting borderline strikes, and that's part of baseball," Nakajima said.

"(On our side) Yamamoto really struggled to get strikes with his curve, and all I could think of was how hard it was for him."

© Kyodo News