In what has become a rarity for the Yakult Swallows over the past few seasons, the club finds itself playing meaningful ball games in late September. And playing pretty well in them, too, as they chalked up their sixth straight win Monday night.
Yuichi Matsumoto, Norichika Aoki and Yuji Onizaki drove in two runs apiece as the Swallows drew first blood with a 7-1 win in the opener of a crucial three-game series against the Hanshin Tigers at Tokyo's Jingu Stadium.
The teams are locked in a tight battle for the third Central League playoff spot and Monday's victory by the third-place Swallows extended their lead over Hanshin to 1 1/2 games. The Tigers have seven games remaining on their schedule while Yakult has 11 games left to play in the regular season.
The CL champion Yomiuri Giants and Chunichi Dragons already have the top two spots sewn up.
On Monday, the little-used Matsumoto cracked a two-run double to center field off Hanshin starter Yuya Ando to break a scoreless tie in the sixth inning before the Swallows broke the game open with a five-run seventh off three Tigers relievers, highlighted by two-run singles from Aoki and Onizaki. Ryo Yoshimoto also plated a run in the seventh with a bloop RBI single to right off Scott Atchison.
"Having a big inning like that really gives the club confidence," said Swallows infielder Jamie D'Antona, who drew a walk in a pinch-hit appearance in the seventh. "This win puts us ahead of the game in that race for the last playoff spot."
Swallows starter Hiromitsu Takagi improved to 3-0 on the season. He worked 6 2/3 effective innings, giving up one run on five hits and three walks.
The Swallows bullpen looked like it did earlier in the year with Lee Hye-chun, Ryota Igarashi and Takehiko Oshimoto combining to hold the Tigers off the scoreboard the rest of the way with 2 1/3 innings of hitless relief.
The Tigers got their lone run of the night when catcher Akihiro Yano led off the top of the seventh with a triple to right off Takagi and scored on Shinjiro Hiyama's pinch-hit RBI single.
Ando (8-11) took the loss. The veteran right-hander allowed a pair of runs on five hits and three walks. Each starter hit one batter with a pitch.
The win may have come at a cost for Yakult. Veteran third baseman Shinya Miyamoto left the game after he appeared to hurt himself diving into first base in a futile attempt to avoid hitting into an inning-ending double play in the third inning. Also, Yakult catcher Ryoji Aikawa was substituted late in the game.