Everyone's heard of beauty contests. The race for the Central League's third playoff spot is an ugly contest, and it took a unexpected turn this past week as two of the three so-so clubs slugging it out for third place did U-turns.
On Sept. 21, Tokyo Yakult's team looked like ex-Swallows, bereft of life, resting in peace and gone to meet their maker. That night, ace Masanori Ishikawa provided the club with its best start in several days only for the bullpen to blow it.
The following day, manager Shigeru Takada sent Hiromitsu Takagi to start in Hiroshima. The fourth-year right-hander, who had pitched well in his previous two starts, was coming off his first pro win on Sept. 16, his 26th birthday. Two weeks earlier, he had held the Carp to five hits in seven scoreless innings of a 3-2 loss.
In his second start against the Carp and the fourth of his career, Takagi, who doesn't throw hard enough to break glass, fashioned a four-hit shutout.
The following day, Yuki Tanaka, an unsigned free agent that Yakult signed in the offseason to a developmental contract, allowed a run on four hits over the distance. The Swallows then swept the BayStars behind solid starts by Shohei Tateyama (15-6), Kyohei Muranaka (1-5) and Ishikawa (11-7).
Takagi then came back on Monday and held down the Hanshin Tigers with his curve and dinky-but-accurate-fastball until help arrived in a 7-1 victory. The win left the Birds a game and a half ahead of fourth-place Hanshin.
Yoshinori Sato, who hasn't pitched well very often in the second half, let Tuesday's game get out of hand after failing to cover the bag on a grounder to his first baseman. With the game tied 2-2 in the fourth, the teenager lost his composure, walked the next two batters and didn't really find the strike zone until the bases were loaded and Takashi Toritani found a first-pitch fastball down the pipe. Toritani lined it for a two-run double. Another two-run double followed and the Swallows were cooked.
Through the first half of the season, the Swallows' starting pitching was solid and the relief corps dominant, and the recent rebound was also based on starting pitching and defense.
"Our pitchers, Takagi and Yuki before that, guys without big names, have beat big name guys," Takada said.
With his pitching coming back to life, it appears Takada has given up on the home run as part of his offensive plan. When D'Antona returned to the starting lineup on Sept. 1, he stopped hitting and was benched on Sept. 14 after seven hits in 37 at-bats.
After hitting 19 homers with a .348 on-base percentage through the middle of August, D'Antona became the invisible man, used in pinch-hitting situations only, with useful-but-unimposing Yuichi Matsumoto getting the starts at first base.
It could be that Takada, who helped turn the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters into a powerhouse as their general manager, is bent on proving, as the Fighters did in 2007, that you don't need home runs to win. The skipper kicked Aaron Guiel and his medium-range power (23 homers) out of the heart of the order to have a 3, 4, 5 combination centered around Norichika Aoki, who hit his 15th home run on Tuesday.
Of course, if the pitching and defense continues to put zeros on the board, then the Swallows will do fine. Speed can make a big difference in tight games, as it did on Monday when Yakult's aggressive base running turned a close contest into a laugher. But Monday's win also saw catcher Ryoji Aikawa knocked out with an injury. His absence will only make it harder to pitch with minimal offense behind them.
Poor run support has also been a critical Carp issue. The pitching has done well but was overburdened in the summer when the run supply dried up.
Adding Scott McClain and Andy Phillips gave the Carp a more stable offense and helped get the club into September with a shot. But starting on Sept. 22, when Takagi, who couldn't break a window with his fastball, shut them down, the Hiroshima hitters have tried to do too much and flopped.
"Offensively, they're trying to hit five-run homers with no one on," Brown said after Saturday's 1-0 loss to the Giants.
"As a manager, what can you do? You can't put a gun to their heads and tell them to relax, it doesn't work."