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John E. Gibson

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Loss fails to quell Giants' CL title buzz

by John E. Gibson (Sep 23, 2012)

Less than 24 hours after Yomiuri clinched the Central League title, its first since 2009, the giant party came to a humbling conclusion.

The Tokyo Yakult Swallows beat up on a title-drunk Giants team, cruising to a 9-3 win before 45,288 on Saturday afternoon at Tokyo Dome.

But the excitement from Friday night, when the Giants wrapped up their 34th CL title (43rd counting the single-league era) by topping the third-place Swallows 6-4, was still in the air.

The Giants stumbled at the start of the season, but have been crushing the competition since sitting 6-1/2 games out of first place just 20 games into the season. In fact, the CL has been almost helpless to stop Yomiuri, which is 42 games over .500 after Saturday's loss.

In the offseason, Yomiuri picked up free agent hurlers Toshiya Sugiuchi and D.J. Houlton from last year's Japan Series-winning Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks team. They also added Shuichi Murata from the Yokohama BayStars--essentially replacing the loss of longtime cleanup man Alex Ramirez--and the pieces looked in place for this kind of CL run.

"Altogether, they hit the ball great and they pitch very well, too," Yakult slugger Wladimir Balentien said of the Giants before Saturday's game.

"They have that pitching staff and they picked up another bat in Murata.

At first when they came together, they didn't play like the team everyone expected. But as the season went on, they shifted into drive and they're doing a great job right now."

And Giants skipper Tatsunori Hara has done well putting the pieces together. The 54-year-old, who has now guided the club to five CL titles over nine seasons (in two stints), said the team hasn't yet reached its ceiling.

"We still have room to improve," Hara said. "We can be better tomorrow than we were today; better the day after tomorrow than tomorrow. That's the way the players make you feel."

The Giants have an impressive set of stats--leading the league in team batting average, runs scored, team ERA and steals--but Hara pointed to the way the Giants played in the field as well as unity.

"We played very strong defensive baseball," Hara said. "The team had the right intensity, really came together and there was a real sense that each player was working toward the goal. I think it's a tribute to the growth of the players."

Growth had a lot to do with the dominant season the Giants have had, but a career year by Shinnosuke Abe is what has pushed them head and shoulders above the competition.

Abe, the leading candidate for the CL MVP award, hit a solo home run, his 26th, in the second inning and doubled in a run in the third inning of the title-clincher.

Abe, who leads the league in RBIs with 93 and a .338 average, needs a late power surge to overtake Balentien (29 homers) to win the triple crown.

The two-time Golden Glove winner refused to take the bulk of the credit for the team's success.

"Sometimes I wonder just what I did," Abe said. "I think it was everyone being conscious of what they had to do working hard."

The Giants had to work hard in Friday's clincher. After taking an early lead, Ryuji Miyade ripped a three-run homer to tie the score in the fifth inning.

It took Hisayoshi Chono's tiebreaking two-run single in the sixth inning to decide the game.

Yomiuri, which had a magic number of 30 on Aug. 23, raced to the third-fastest league title--behind the 1990 Giants and the 2003 Hanshin Tigers. The Giants hope to stay in that groove into the playoffs and make a push to a Japan Series title.

The best-of-seven second stage of the CL Climax Series kicks off Oct. 17 at Tokyo Dome. The Giants will play the winner of the best-of-three first stage, which starts Oct. 13 at the home of the CL's second-place finisher.

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Lions scramble past Fighters

The Saitama Seibu Lions battled back for the second straight game to defeat the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in a Pacific League showdown at Seibu Dome.

Chris Carter's RBI groundout in the eighth inning capped a scrappy 5-4 comeback victory as Seibu fought back from four runs down.

Esteban German's clutch single tied the score before Carter hit a potential double-play ball to short with runners on first and third and one out. Makoto Kaneko mishandled it but picked it up and fired to first for one out as the go-ahead run scored off reliever Hirotoshi Masui (5-5) .

Seibu, which fell behind 2-0 early Friday before winning, closed the gap behind Nippon Ham in the standings to a half-game and can take over the PL lead by finishing off a sweep at home today.

Hideto Asamura pulled the Lions within a run with his third hit of the game, a seventh-inning clutch single up the middle.

Elsewhere, Takahiro Fujioka (6-6) worked eight strong innings and Toshiaki Imae ripped a fifth-inning grand slam to help the Chiba Lotte Marines rout the Orix Buffaloes 8-3 at QVC Marine Field.

At Kleenex Stadium Miyagi, Yuichi Honda had three hits, including a two-run single, as the third-place Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks distanced themselves from fourth-place Tohoku Rakuten by topping the Eagles 4-2.


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