Masahiro Tanaka pitched Japan's newest team a little closer to the postseason on Thursday.
Tanaka struck out a season-high 12 batters in eight innings as the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles beat the Saitama Seibu Lions 4-0 at Seibu Dome and moved 1-1/2 games ahead of the fourth-place Lions in the Pacific League standings.
"At this stage, 1-1/2 games doesn't mean much, we have to push it further and further," said the 20-year-old Tanaka (12-4), who allowed four hits and walked two in eclipsing his previous high for wins in a season.
The Eagles will face the Lions in three starting next Tuesday in Sendai. Tanaka, who improved to 2-5 against Seibu in his career, is a good bet to go against them then.
"It's true, I haven't beaten them [much], but I really want to," Tanaka said. "Of course, shutting them down tonight doesn't guarantee I'll shut them down next time."
Fernando Seguignol broke the ice with a second-inning home run off right-hander Fumikazu Kimura, and Takeshi Yamasaki hit a three-run shot off Jonah Bayliss in the eighth.
The homer gave the 40-year-old Yamasaki his third 30-homer season.
The Eagles clinched it in the eighth off four Lions relievers. Tomoki Hoshino, who left after 1-1/3 innings when he allowed a check-swing leadoff single to Makoto Kosaka.
Todd Linden singled off Taiyo Fujita, who left after a sacrifice advanced both runners into scoring position.
With that, Eagles manager Katsuya Nomura pulled PL batting leader Teppei Tsuchiya for a pinch-hitter. Tsuchiya, who had walked each of his first three trips to the plate, sat so Yosuke Takasu could bat. Lefty Hironori Matsunaga got Takasu to hit an easy foul pop for the second out.
"I made the move because I wanted one more run," Nomura said. "I trusted him [Takasu] to get one hit and he let me down. Well, that's baseball."
Matsunaga left for Bayliss, and while the pitching change was being made, Yamasaki had a word with home plate umpire Tetsuo Yamaji. In the slugger's previous at-bat, Yamaji rang him up on a called third strike that nearly caught the lower limit of the zone.
It mattered little what they said, however, as Yamasaki made contact on a first-pitch fastball away from Bayliss.
Despite having thrown just 115 pitches with good command, Tanaka was working on five-days' rest and was not sent back to the mound.
Instead, Kazuo Fukumori worked a 1-2-3 ninth to close it out.
"Sure I wanted to go out there," said Tanaka, who won his fourth straight start and had been inspired by strong starts from Hisashi Iwakuma and Satoshi Nagai that saw the Eagles take two out of three in Tokorozawa.
"Tonight my fastball was real good and so was my control. I haven't been that sharp of late, but watching Iwakuma and Nagai, I really didn't want to be the weak link."
Lions starter Kimura was nearly as good, although the Eagles made him work and he was pulled after six effective innings.
"I didn't have my best velocity tonight, but I had late movement and kept going to the fastball more and more," Kimura said. "The coaches encouraged me to pitch like a young guy, so I just tried to be fearless and threw for all I was worth."
Apart from the Lions batters, the person most troubled by Tanaka's effort was his skipper.
"He saw to his control and went after batters, and so it looked like everything was fine," Nomura said. "But the time it took him to throw those pitches? It made me tired just watching this game. He was even worse than the other guy [Kimura].
"He ought to think of his team more. Pitching that slowly, with no rhythm makes it hell on the fielders.
"I want us to play perfect ball, but that's not practical. I'd settle for nearly perfect. We're not there yet. We won, but we could easily have lost."