Rookie Yasunobu Okugawa allowed a run over 6-2/3 innings to earn the win as the Central League-leading Yakult Swallows opened a three-game series with the second-place Hanshin Tigers with a 4-1 win on Friday.
Yakult's seventh straight win after a three-game sweep of the third-place Yomiuri Giants moved them three games ahead of Hanshin. The Swallows are chasing their first pennant since 2015, while the Tigers' last title came in 2005.
At Jingu Stadium, Okugawa (9-3) lacked his usual ability to make batters swing and miss, but he still threw strikes. The right-hander allowed four hits and a walk while striking out just two in a matchup with tough Tigers lefty Haruto Takahashi (3-2).
"The team sees this week as a mountain in our path," Okugawa said. "I was good at the start, but at the end I left the relievers with a dangerous situation. There's some frustration at not being able to get myself out of that jam."
The Swallows ended Takahashi's bid for a third straight shutout in the first inning as Tetsuto Yamada scored from first on a two-out Munetaka Murakami double. Naomichi Nishiura's home run made it 2-0 in the second.
Yusuke Oyama put Hanshin on the board with the Tigers' first hit, a fourth-inning solo home run. Takahashi allowed back-to-back singles to open the Swallows' fifth, and Yasutaka Shiomi's one-out single plated both runners.
Okugawa left with two outs and the bases loaded in the seventh inning after walking his only batter of the game. With the tying runs on base, lefty reliever Kazuto Taguchi struck out pinch-hitter Yoshio Itoi on a check swing to end the inning.
Swallows setup man Noboru Shimizu worked a 1-2-3 eighth before closer Scott McGough pitched a scoreless ninth to record his 27th save.
At Mazda Stadium, Shogo Sakakura's RBI single snapped a fifth-inning tie as the fourth-place Hiroshima Carp handed the Giants their fourth straight loss, 6-2.
At Yokohama Stadium, Keita Sano hit a first-inning solo homer and a second-inning grand slam as the DeNA BayStars came from behind to beat the Chunichi Dragons 9-3.
At Sapporo Dome, Nippon Ham Fighters rookie Kazuaki Tateno (4-1) struck out seven over six innings as four pitchers combined on a four-hit 9-0 shutout of the Pacific League's second-place Lotte Marines, who fell two games back of the first-place Orix Buffaloes
At MetLife Dome, reserve infielder Haruka Yamada put the Seibu Lions ahead for good with an eighth-inning RBI single in a 6-2 win over the fourth-place SoftBank Hawks. The four-time defending Japan Series champions have lost seven straight games for the first time in nine years.
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