As the interleague schedule winds down, the surprising Yakult Swallows find themselves in unfamiliar territory--near the top of the Central League standings.
After Thursday's win, a 6-5 11th-inning walkoff victory over the Lotte Marines at Jingu Stadium, the Swallows are just three games behind their crosstown rivals, the mighty Yomiuri Giants, with four games in hand.
"Our pitching has been great this season," said Aaron Guiel, whose solo homer in the 11th inning Thursday night boosted Yakult's record to 34-22-0 through their first 56 games, including 13-9 against Pacific League clubs. "That plus the offense is not relying on just one or two guys--we have a pretty balanced attack."
Guiel is leading the way for the team offensively, with a .297 average and a team-high 10 home runs. His 42 RBIs are the fifth-highest in the CL. Other key contributors at the plate have been veteran infielder Shinya Miyamoto, who is hitting .310 in his 15th season, and newcomer Jamie D'Antona, with nine HRs and 29 runs batted in.
Star outfielder Norichika Aoki has gotten off to an uncharacteristically slow start--for him, at least--hitting .277 with six homers and 26 ribbies, but others have stepped in to pick up the slack.
"This year, we've relied on constant good at-bats, one through nine," said Guiel, a former New York Yankee who whacked 35 home runs in 2007, but suffered through an injury-plagued season last year.
On the mound, sixth-year right-hander Shohei Tateyama has been having an outstanding year, despite a subpar outing Thursday where he didn't figure in the decision. At 8-0, Tateyama is leading the league in wins while posting a 2.32 ERA with 49 strikeouts. Lefty Masanori Ishikawa is one win behind him at 7-3 while 20-year-old fireballer Yoshinori Sato has shown flashes of brilliance when he hasn't been bothered by blisters on his finger.
But, as Guiel points out, it's the relief corps that has really improved.
"Our starting pitching and the back end of our bullpen is much stronger than the last two years," said Guiel, whose Swallows finished fifth in 2008 (66 wins) and last in 2007 (60 wins). "When we get to the sixth or seventh inning with a lead, we feel that the game is over. Now I know how they felt at Hanshin when J-F-K (relievers Jeff Williams, Kyuji Fujikawa, Tomoyuki Kubota) was so effective."
Hard-throwing setup men Ryota Igarashi, Kenichi Matsuoka and Jun Hagiwara have been masterful at bridging the gap between the starters and South Korean closer Lim Chang Yong, who has been nearly unhittable at times this season. Lim, who saved 33 games last year in his first season in Japan, has already chalked up one win and 18 saves this season. With only one earned run allowed so far, his ERA is 0.00--and it's pretty tough to improve on that. In 27 2/3 innings pitched in 2009, "Mr. Zero" has struck out 24 batters while giving up 14 hits.
Catcher Ryoji Aikawa, who joined the club as a free agent in the offseason, also deserves some of the credit for the club's hot start.
"His handling of the pitchers, the way he calls a game, the way he controls the running game has had a lot of impact," Guiel said.
If they can keep it up, the Swallows could find themselves in the thick of the battle for their first Japan Series title since 2001. There's a lot of baseball left to play, but at Jingu, all the parts seem to be clicking right now.