A tight race atop the Central League just got a little tighter.
Hayato Sakamoto socked a first-inning leadoff home run and midseason acquisition Hideki Asai gave Giants skipper Tatsunori Hara six scoreless innings on the hill Sunday afternoon as Yomiuri shut out the Hanshin Tigers 3-0.
The Giants' win at Tokyo Dome means the Tigers still lead the logjam atop the CL standings, now a mere three percentage points ahead of second-place Yomiuri. The Chunichi Dragons, meanwhile, are just a game-and-a-half out of first place after falling 3-2 to the Yakult Swallows in Nagoya.
Yomiuri's victory Sunday completed a three-game sweep of their Osaka rivals. Asai, a 26-year-old right-hander who began the season with the Rakuten Eagles, improved to 2-1 this year. He allowed four hits and walked four in his 97-pitch outing.
Yuya Kubo and Tetsuya Yamaguchi each worked a scoreless inning in relief and closer Marc Kroon nailed down his 18th save with a 1-2-3 ninth.
"We needed to get off to a good start so I was looking to get on base to get things going," Sakamoto said of his first-inning at-bat. "The home run was just something extra."
The blast was the 24th of the season for Sakamoto, still just 21 years old, and his fourth leading off a game this year.
Tigers starter Randy Messenger saw his record even out at 3-3 after taking the loss. The big American allowed all three runs on five hits and three walks over three innings of work.
With the Giants nursing a 1-0 lead in the third, Alex Ramirez chopped an RBI single back up the middle to score Sakamoto from second and Edgar Gonzalez capped the scoring a couple of batters later with an RBI single to left that brought home Ramirez.
Ramirez's RBI was the 98th of the season for the veteran slugger from Venezuela. Ramirez needs to knock in two more runs to reach 100 RBIs for the eighth consecutive season, which will be a Japanese baseball record. He is currently tied with Giants legend Sadaharu Oh, who drove in 100 or more runs in seven straight seasons in the 1960s.
The Giants only mustered five hits off four Tigers pitchers--two of them by Sakamoto, who also singled in the third inning--but they made the most of them. Hanshin had six hits on the day.
"We played well the previous two games so I was confident I would get the run support I needed," said Asai, acquired in a trade in July. "It's a great honor to pitch in a Giants-Tigers series and I look forward to my next crack at Hanshin."
In the Pacific League, the Nippon-Ham Fighters defeated the Seibu Lions 4-1 at Sapporo Dome. At Kleenex Stadium, Rakuten Eagles right-hander Masahiro Tanaka went the distance in a 4-0 shutout of the Softbank Hawks.