The Saitama Seibu Lions finished the weekend with their first eight-game winning streak in four seasons and a two-game Pacific League lead over the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.
Sunday's 6-1 victory over Orix was much like the Lions' season as a whole. When core regulars didn't produce, two guys on the margin stepped up. Former ace Fumiya Nishiguchi came from the farm to pitch six scoreless innings. Outfielder Hisashi Takayama, relegated to the Eastern League for most of his pro career, homered twice, doubled and drove in three runs.
With 34 games remaining in this demolition derby of a season, the Lions went into a three-game series at home to the Hawks on Tuesday prepared to welcome back three key players for the stretch run.
Lefty Kazuhisa Ishii, who has been out since June 10, will start today at Seibu Dome. Cleanup hitter Takeya Nakamura, out since June 9, began playing on the farm team on Tuesday.
The Lions expect both Nakamura and No. 2 starter Takayuki Kishi, out since June 29, back by September for the final sprint.
The Lions' story this season, however, has been unheralded players coming up from the farm team and contributing at every opportunity.
"It's a lot of guys coming up and not being awed by playing at this level," said Lions closer Brian Sikorski, who said the support of the team's veterans made the transition easy.
"We've got a core of veterans, guys like Hiroshi Hirao, who never lets anyone get too down."
The biggest splash was the sudden impact of outfielder Ryo Sakata. The big-swinging 23-year-old homered six times in his first 11 games, scoring 10 runs and driving in 11. Sakata's penchant for strikeouts earned him a trip back to the Eastern League, but he made his mark.
"Sakata was on fire for two weeks," said designated hitter Dee Brown. "But it's been a lot of guys, him and [infielder Hidekazu] Hoshi, and [infielder Hidekazu] Asamura, Takayama.
"I always root for Takayama because he's had a career like mine: came up early, got hurt, got stuck in the minors."
Takayama, who finally had the chance to compete for a regular job in the outfield at the age of 28, ended the weekend with a .291 average in 278 at-bats.
When regular catcher Toru Hosokawa has been sidelined, Tatsuyuki Uemoto, who battled Takayama for playing time in the outfield early in the season, has stepped up. As of Sunday, the Lions were 16-6 in the games Uemoto started behind the plate.
When the pitching injuries piled up in June, the door opened for 27-year-old right-hander Masamitsu Hirano, 2-2 with a 4.01 ERA in 33-2/2 innings.
Take that production from players that few outside of Tokorozawa had high hopes for and add it to solid seasons from the team's veteran core and the Lions are well positioned to be in the postseason.
Sikorski, too, fits right in with this team's theme. A 36-year-old with solid credentials, he was unsigned by the Chiba Lotte Marines, but leads the PL in saves in his first season with Seibu.
"This has the makings of a very special season," he said. "One that can keep going into October and November."