Buffaloes and Swallows go from worst-to-first to set up improbable, intriguing Japan Series

The 2021 Japan Series will be the setting of the ultimate rags-to-riches story.

The Orix Buffaloes and Tokyo Swallows were dead last in the Pacific and Central Leagues, respectively, in both 2019 and 2020 and not even close to contending for anything.

Then both clubs suddenly bounced back to win their respective league title this year and on Friday secured series-clinching ties — the Buffaloes earned a 3-3 result against the Chiba Lotte Marines on a walk-off hit and the Swallows finished 2-2 against the Yomiuri Giants — in the final stage of the Climax Series and will now meet for the title.

About the only thing more improbable than either the Buffaloes or Swallows reaching the Japan Series is both of them doing it. Yet when the Series begins at Kyocera Dome Osaka on Nov. 20, those two teams will fight it out to determine which comeback story is the best.

“Only two teams get the chance to become the best in Japan, so I want to seize this opportunity,” Swallows manager Shingo Takatsu said during a news conference after Friday’s game. “You don’t get a lot of chances like this.”

The Japan Series also gets an infusion of new blood with this matchup after four straight seasons of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks — who sent out a tweet congratulating the Buffaloes on Friday — beating up on the CL and two straight years of the Giants being on the receiving end.

Having different teams means new stars get the chance to raise their profiles under the Japan Series spotlight. Chief among them is 23-year-old Orix ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto, an 18-game winner who is favored to win the Sawamura Award and is also a candidate to be named PL MVP.

Yamamoto faced the Swallows during interleague play in May and allowed two runs over seven innings and struck out nine in a win.

“I need to study their batters,” Yamamoto said during a news conference Friday. “I think they’ve changed and I’m also completely different.”

If Yamamoto starts Game 1 as expected, the Japan Series could kickoff with an explosive pitching matchup between him and the Swallows’ 20-year-old Yasunobu Okugawa, who won nine games during the regular season and threw a 98-pitch shutout in Game 1 of the CL Climax Series. Okugawa was also the Central League Climax Series MVP.

It’s not only those two either.

The Swallows have an MVP candidate in 21-year-old Munetaka Murakami, who finished tied for the NPB lead with 39 home runs, and Yasutaka Shiomi, who drove in four runs during the Climax Series and may have been the most exciting player in Japan over the past couple of weeks.

Orix’s late-blooming slugger Yutaro Sugimoto won the PL home run title with 32 and hit a two-run blast against the Marines in a 2-0 win in Game 2 of the Climax Series. Sugimoto was 3-for-9 in the Climax Series and drew five walks, including two intentional free passes, and was named series MVP. The Buffaloes may also have the PL Rookie of the Year in pitcher Hiroya Miyagi, who was 13-4 with a 2.51 ERA this season.

At a time when more Japanese players are heading to MLB, and baseball is competing for attention with other sports and activities, the league has to take every chance it can to cultivate new star players and there is no time like the present.

More than seeing new faces on the big stage, watching two teams who fell on hard times and pulled themselves off the canvas makes for a very compelling story.

The Swallows have qualified for the Japan Series for the first time since 2015. | KYODO
The Swallows have qualified for the Japan Series for the first time since 2015. | KYODO

The Buffaloes and Swallows were mirror images of each other during the Climax Series.

Yamamoto and Okugawa each threw a shutout in Game 1, both teams held the opposition scoreless in Game 2 and both clubs rallied to wrap up their series with a tie in Game 3. The Buffaloes allowed just three runs during the final stage in the Pa League, while Yakult yielded just two in the CL.

“The pitchers did their best to persevere in situations where there were no runs scored,” said Buffaloes manager Satoshi Nakajima, whose team scored just six runs in three games. “The position players scored points for us at the very end.”

Still, the Buffaloes have probably had the more improbable run.

The last time an Orix team reached the Japan Series was in 1996, when Ichiro Suzuki led the BlueWave to the title. The club also got this far in 1995, when the two current managers were playing on opposing sides and Takatsu’s Swallows claimed the title in five games.

It’s been almost nothing but losing seasons for Orix since then. Following a third-place finish 1999, the franchise, which merged with the Kintetsu Buffaloes after the 2004 season, finished above .500 just four times from 2000-2020. Orix finished 16 games out of first place in 2019 and was 27 back last year.

This season, the Buffaloes caught fire during interleague play and won that title before going on to win the league pennant and Climax Series. Now there is only one step left to climb.

“That’s all in the past,” Nakajima said Friday. “I’m just thinking about the future.”

The future is a Yakult team that made a similar rise from worst-to-first after finishing 18-games adrift in 2019 and 25 behind the leaders in 2020.

The biggest change for the Birds is a pitching staff that posted a league-worst 4.61 ERA last season improving enough to finish third at 3.48 this year.

Okugawa has been a big part of that, going 9-4 with a 3.26 ERA in his second season.

“I’m being led by the older players and they’ve been giving me advice,” he said. “I want to become a player who can lead the team.”

Yakult has tasted success more recently than Orix, having won the league title in 2015. The Swallows went on to win the Climax Series before falling against the Hawks in five games in that season’s Japan Series. The team had just one winning season over the next five years before getting turned around in 2021.

“It was a very difficult fight,” Takatsu said after Game 3. “I felt the players’ strength and their growth and we were able to win like this.”

Takatsu recorded the final out to get the save for the Swallows in the clinching game of the 2001 Japan Series against Kintetsu and now has the chance to guide the team to a title as its manager.

“I’ve gotten the right to compete for the Japan Series, so we’re definitely going to win,” he said.

The Buffaloes and Swallows have both had stellar seasons, but only one will be able get their comeback story across the finish line.

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