Why did Tigers fans have to watch this happen to their team? What did they do to deserve this? The simple answer is not the best one, in my opinion.
First, let’s explain the situation. It was the top of the ninth inning and the Tigers were up 3-2. Whom else should they bring in but incumbent closer Seung-hwan Oh? And it looked like it was the right move, as he retired the first two hitters. Fans had their victory balloons blown up and started the familiar chant: Ato hitori! Ato hitori! (One more to go! One more to go!) One outfield hit was followed by an infield hit, then a walk, and the bases were now loaded. Still, the Tigers had the lead and were one out from victory. The closer got hitter Kakunaka down to two strikes and the “Ato ikkyu!” (One pitch to go!) calls began. On full count, and no real choice but to throw a strike, the Marines hitter made no mistake, sending it into the right field stands, breaking the hearts of 33,000+ Tigers fans in the process.
The easy one to blame is the closer. He is paid to finish off opponents in the final inning of the game, and he struggled mightily with his control. There’s no excuse for loading the bases, especially to consecutive batters. Or is there? More on this a little later, but first, it should be noted that Oh was pretty bad in interleague play last season as well. Let’s hope he does not drag this with him into upcoming games.
Now we’ve looked at the easy scapegoat – how about the rest?
1) Poor fielding – Instead of throwing one man under the bus here, I’m going to look at a few plays that made a difference in the game. First of all, newly recalled Ryota Imanari bobbled an easy grounder that was primed to be a double play in the first. Instead the inning continued and the Marines scored the first run of the game. Shouldn’t have happened. Next, Takashi Toritani misplayed two balls over the course of the game, and one of those was in the fatal ninth inning. A grounder came to him and he failed to field it cleanly, resulting in the second hit of the inning. He was not charged with an error, something that is probably because of scorekeeping bias. In any case, the game could have ended 3-2 had the play been made. (I will also point out that Kosuke Fukudome and Kazunari Tsuruoka teamed up for a super play in the fifth, saving a run. Highlight here.)
2) Poor hitting – No, the Tigers did not do as poorly as usual. In fact, their 12 hits was their most in 17 games. However, with that many hits and a walk thrown in to boot, you’d like to see more than 3 runs on the scoreboard. Instead, they left 8 guys on base, hit into a double play and got caught stealing. Even when they scored in the second, third and seventh, they could have gotten more. In other words, the lead could have been much more than a run, had they only hit better in those crucial situations.
3) Poor decision-making – Yes, some of the blame always has to go to the manager. I don’t fault him for bringing in Oh when he did. What bugged me (and many other fans) was his insistence on bunting whenever Toritani reached first base. The first time, it worked – Hiroki Uemoto sucessfully moved him over to second base in the fourth inning, and Tori came around to score. In the sixth, though, it didn’t. He tried too hard to connect with a bad pitch, couldn’t deaden it enough and the result was a double play. Either way, I am sick and tired of the Tigers playing for one run. It’s not the answer! It hasn’t led to success, offense or wins so far this year! CHANGE YOUR STRATEGY, WADA!
In the end, though, it really comes down to Oh. Because the above things will happen over the course of the season to any team. The defense makes gaffes. The hitters get limited to “just” 3 runs. The manager (especially ours) will make poor decisions and play small ball. The closer’s job is to shut down the opponents, especially in close games. It should have been fairly easy – Shinobu Fukuhara took down the heart of the order 1-2-3 in the eighth, and Oh just had to knock out their 7th, 8th and then a pinch hitter. He got 2/3 to the way there. Then, tragedy struck. (And at press time, it’s looking pretty bad again tonight, folks. I might have to write another report again tomorrow!!!)