Baseball: Buffaloes, Swallows roll toward Japan Series clash

© Kyodo News

The Pacific League's Orix Buffaloes beat the Lotte Marines 2-0 on Thursday while the Central League's Yakult Swallows downed the Yomiuri Giants 5-0 as both league champs moved to within a win or a tie of securing Japan Series berths.

Yutaro Sugimoto hit a two-run home run for the Buffaloes at Kyocera Dome Osaka. In Tokyo's CL contest, Yasutaka Shiomi hit a game-breaking three-run triple to boost the Swallows. Both Orix and Yakult took 3-0 leads in their best-of-seven Climax Series final stages.

Sugimoto broke a scoreless deadlock with a two-run sixth-inning home run on the first pitch by reliever Yusuke Azuma. The PL home run leader singled his first two times up against starter Manabu Mima.

With two outs in the sixth, PL batting champ Masataka Yoshida smashed an infield single off Mima's leg. Azuma took the mound and hung a first-pitch slider in the heart of the zone that Sugimoto lined over the left-field wall for his first home run of the postseason.

"Sugimoto appeared to be a little tight in yesterday's game, but today he was relaxed and his usual self," Buffaloes manager Satoshi Nakajima said.

Orix lefty Daiki Tajima allowed three hits and a walk over six shutout innings while striking out five. With a lead to protect, Ryo Yoshida allowed a two-out hit in the seventh, before Tyler Higgins and Yoshihisa Hirano each pitched a 1-2-3 inning to close it out.

"I'm in good form and was glad to be able to pitch well in front of the fans today," Tajima said. "I was worked up for the game but wasn't nervous as I faced the hitters."

At Jingu Stadium, Yakult lefty Keiji Takahashi pitched out of a first-inning bases-loaded jam en route to six scoreless innings. The lefty walked three and allowed two hits while striking out eight.

"I was really tight in the first inning, but after that was able to calm down and pitch well and just concentrate on one batter at a time," Takahashi said.

The Swallows opened the scoring when cleanup hitter Munetaka Murakami singled to open the second inning and, after two walks, scored on Naomichi Nishiura's sacrifice fly off Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano.

A pair of Giants mistakes opened the door for a four-run Swallows' sixth. An outfield misplay turned a Murakami leadoff single into a double. Sloppy infield play put another runner on with no outs. With two outs and first base open, the Giants intentionally walked the bases loaded, but ace pinch-hitter Shingo Kawabata walked in a run before Shiomi delivered a three-run triple.

"Shingo drew that walk under very difficult circumstances, and that took the pressure off me as I went to the plate," Shiomi said. "I got jammed on that pitch but with the outfield playing shallow, it got through."

Yakult reliever Albert Suarez issued a leadoff walk in the seventh, but the final nine Giants hitters were retired in order as Suarez, Noboru Shimizu and Scott McGough completed the two-hit shutout.

Each league champ begins the best-of-seven final stage with a one-win advantage and now leads 3-0. The team with the most wins advances to the Japan Series, while the league champ advances if the series ends in a tie. Neither the Buffaloes nor the Swallows have yet allowed a run.

A Japan Series berth for the Buffaloes would be their franchise's first since Ichiro Suzuki led the Orix BlueWave to the Japan Series championship in 1996. The Swallows last appeared in Japan's championship series in 2015.