After finally reaching the .500 mark for the first time since early April, the Tigers proceeded to fall right back into mediocrity with two straight blowout losses to the Saitama Seibu Lions, ending May with a 12-13 record, and only staying in third thanks to even worse play (or luck?) from the Dragons, Swallows and Carp. How would the team do with 6 straight home games against Pacific League opponents this week? The first set was against the Chiba Lotte Marines, who held a similar record to the Tigers heading into this one.
Game 1: I was once again able to take in a game at the stadium, and once again witnessed Minoru Iwata pitching like his true self: giving up his share of hits and walks, but escaping most of his jams unscathed. This one was no different, though the first run of the game went against him in part because Ryota Imanari muffed a ground ball that should have started a double play. The Tigers retaliated with runs in the second and third frames, coming off the bats of Hayata Itoh and Mauro Gomez, but Iwata allowed the Marines to tie it up in the top of the 4th, as leadoff hitter Luis Cruz hit a rocket to the left field stands. The game remained knotted until the seventh, when the Tigers mounted a rally (one that should have gotten them more than one run). Hiroki Uemoto came through in the clutch with the potential game-winner. Then, the ninth happened. (Click here for a fuller report/commentary.) Heartbreak at Koshien, as the Tigers dropped the first game, falling to 3 games below .500 and tied for fourth in the CL. Final Score: Marines 6, Tigers 3.
Game 2: The man with the huge scoreless innings streak was set to put an end to the Tigers’ slide in this one. Shintaro Fujinami had gone 26 straight innings without allowing a single run, and extended it another six in this game, while striking out 11 more batters to extend his CL lead to 81 strikeouts. And the Tigers bats came out angry and ready to give the team a lead that even the worst relief corps could not surrender. Gomez started the party with a 2-run home run in the first, then Fujinami himself knocked in a run in the second. Kosuke Fukudome added to the fun in the third and fifth, then Itoh in the same frame, and even Matt Murton joined the party in the sixth. By the time the “lucky 7th” had come around, the game was a joke. Eight Tigers runs to nothing for the Marines, and Fujinami still going strong. Then the unthinkable happened. A misplayed single to right (where Itoh had moved to replace Fukudome) led to three bases, then a strikeout later, a poorly fielded grounder by Uemoto scored the Marines’ first run. Still, Fujinami got the second out without allowing another run, and the fans were ready for the balloon release. But hit followed hit after hit, and relievers replaced relievers, and the crushing blow came off Imae’s bat: a 3-run home run against Ryoma Matsuda, tying the score at 8. Fans and players alike were deflated, as were the balloons, released in frustration for the second straight night. No scoring over the next three innings (held tight by relievers Shinobu Fukuhara and Seung-hwan Oh), and in the bottom of the 10th, things still looked bad for the Tigers. The bottom of the order was due up. But Shunsuke led off with a double and advanced to third after a Keisuke Kanoh walk and a Katsuhiko Saka pinch hit single. With just one out, captain Takashi Toritani was due up, and he made no mistake and wasted no time: a deep fly to left easily scored Shunsuke, and the team narrowly avoided heartbreak for the second straight night. Final Score: Tigers 9, Marines 8.
Game 3: I’m sure I was not the only fan who was nervous about this one. Young 2013 first draft pick Yuta Iwasada (he of the 11.57 ERA so far on the year) was going up against the team that had already scored 14 runs in this series. However, right from the start he held them in check. In fact, he threw 6 2/3 shutout innings and left the game with a 1-0 lead, thanks to a second inning Taiga Egoshi RBI triple that was centimeters from being a home run. Pinch hitter Yamato managed to
bunt hit to left field in the seventh, after which Toritani walked and Uemoto hit a ball to deep left center, scoring the two baserunners. That was all the scoring in this one, as the combination of Yuya Andoh, Kazuya Takamiya, Fukuhara and Oh closed the door the rest of the way. Final Score: Tigers 3, Marines 0.
Series Notes: Before the first game of the series, it was announced that former closer Kyuji Fujikawa, who had been released by the Texas Rangers, would not re-sign with the Tigers. Instead, he would play ball near his hometown in Kochi Prefecture in the Independent League. Incidentally, Fujikawa holds the team record for longest scoreless streak at 47 2/3 innings. Fujinami is sixth in club history with his 32… Itoh injured his left thumb in the second game, and is set to go on the disabled list. Ryota Arai played third base on the farm on June 4, and should rejoin the team for the next series. Kentaro Sekimoto (who has as many hits as beanings this year) also hit the DL with a wounded left oblique muscle… Somehow the Pacific League feasted on Central League teams this week, and the Tigers were able to make some breathing room for themselves in the standings. Imagine if they had won on Tuesday! Here are the current standings: