The Yomiuri Giants clinched the 38th Central League title, and 47th league championship, in franchise history after a 3-3 tie against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows on Friday.
Once the game between the second-place Hanshin Tigers and DeNA BayStars finished 3-3 minutes earlier, the Giants only needed to secure a tie against the Swallows. They began celebrating when Yakult failed to score in top of the 10th and final inning, and the party really got going when the game ended and the Giants were able to parade around Tokyo Dome.
“This game was very tough and symbolic of this season, very tight and we just barely made it, in many ways just like this season has been,” manager Tatsunori Hara said of a year that was hit by the coronavirus pandemic, didn’t open until June 19 and did not have fans in the stands until the middle of July.
“This year has been a battle for not only the Giants players but for the players and staff of all 12 teams, who maintained their physical condition under difficult circumstances. There are games left, but to have battled this far is something to be proud of.”
The pennant, in a season limited to 120 games, is the Giants’ 38th since Japan’s two-league system was inaugurated in 1950. It is their ninth under Hara.
Because the CL eliminated its playoffs due to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus, the Giants automatically advance to the Japan Series. There, they will play the winner of the Pacific League Climax Series, which will feature the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks hosting the team that finishes second in the PL.
The Giants finished Friday’s games leading the CL in runs scored, with 500, and in fewest runs allowed, with 393.
On the pitching side, the story has been dominated by ace Tomoyuki Sugano’s 13-0 start, but Hara also got big starting contributions from rookie Shosei Togo and newcomer Angel Sanchez. The bullpen has been anchored by the closer, second-year import Rubby De La Rosa.
The offense has been led by the trio of shortstop Hayato Sakamoto, the 2019 MVP, cleanup hitter and third baseman Kazuma Okamoto, and center fielder Yoshihiro Maru, the league’s 2017 and 2018 MVP from his days with the Hiroshima Carp.
The biggest offensive surprise has been a resurgence from 38-year-old Hiroyuki Nakajima, whose extra-base power returned to levels he had not approached in eight years — before his ill-fated two-year minor-league stint in the United States.
One feature of a Hara team is his fondness for pinch runners. His chief speed demon this season has been Daisuke Masuda, who was also at the center of a controversial move this summer.
On Aug. 6, Hara brought Masuda out to throw two-thirds of an inning in a blowout loss in order to save wear and tear on his bullpen.
Although a common move in the major leagues, it is virtually unheard of in Japan, and it points to one last thing about Hara’s Giants. While they are indisputably good at scoring and preventing runs, they are also entertaining.