Matt Murton is looking forward to a good old-fashioned pennant race as the Central League heads into its stretch run. With five of the six CL teams still in the playoff picture, he should not be disappointed.
"At this point, there's five clubs that could finish anywhere from first to fifth, so it's definitely going to make for an interesting finish, and I think it's going to be a lot of fun as a player, and probably also as a fan," said Murton, an American outfielder in his second season with the Hanshin Tigers, one of the clubs in the thick of the race.
With about a month left in the regular season, the only team definitely out of contention in the CL is the woeful Yokohama BayStars, who were a whopping 26 games out of first place through Sept. 14.
The Yakult Swallows have been the team to beat all season, and they carried a six-game lead over the Chunichi Dragons into play Sept. 15. A half game behind the Dragons sit the Yomiuri Giants, with Murton's Tigers trailing them by a game-and-a-half.
The Hiroshima Carp are still alive, a dozen games behind the Swallows with 30 left to play, but they have been fading of late.
The top three clubs in each league qualify for the postseason, with the pennant winner receiving a first-round bye.
Of course, injuries are a factor in any playoff race, and all the contending teams have had their share so far.
Swallows ace Shohei Tateyama took time off with a sore pitching hand and All-Star closer Lim Chang-yong also saw some time on the disabled list, although both are back with the club now. Currently, set-up man supreme Tony Barnette is out with a fractured wrist, hard-throwing starter Yoshinori Sato is off the roster due to shoulder pain, and backup catcher Ryohei Kawamoto is out with an ankle injury. Any or all of them could be back come playoff time, but nothing is certain.
Among the pursuers, Dragons' Taiwanese ace left-hander Chen Wei-yin is fighting another niggling injury and he lasted less than four frames in his last start on Sept. 13. The club did, however, recently get slugger Tony Blanco back from a broken finger. The Tigers have been without first-string catcher Kenji Jojima most of the year and will have to make do without him the rest of the way, but they will get American slugger Craig Brazell back soon from a leg injury.
Yomiuri's former league MVP Michihiro Ogasawara is likely done for the remainder of the regular season with a wrist injury, but he has said he hopes to be back for the Climax Series, should his Giants qualify.
But injuries are part of the game, as they say. The show must go on.
"I think it really comes down to just trying to win every single day," said Murton, who set the NPB single-season hits record last year with 214. "I don't think that any one team can look at another team and feel like they've separated themselves that much from the pack, and that's true of all of us. I think we have a good enough team, as do maybe some of the other ones, to win, to be successful and maybe to go deep into the playoffs. But that means we're going to have to try and find a way to win each and every night."
That was something the Tigers had trouble doing in a three-game series at Jingu Stadium from Sept. 9-11. The Swallows swept all three from Hanshin in what, at the time, was a battle between the top two teams in the CL.
It has seemed at times as if the baseball pundits have been waiting for the annual "Swallows swoon" to kick in. The Hanshin sweep, however, may have been a sign that times have changed.
But this race is still far from over. Murton, 29, one of only three CL players hitting .300 or better this season, thinks the fact that there are only six teams in each league makes the games all that more meaningful.
"That's one thing about the way this league, the Central League, is set up," he said. "The entire league, you're playing against your competition every night, so the standings can vary on a night-to-night basis that way, and that definitely makes it interesting. It's going to be fun."