While the interleague mini-season has gone the Tigers’ way on most nights, they would face their biggest challenge in the early part of the week: a 3-game series against the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, in the same dome where they dropped three straight to end last postseason. They beat two great Fighters pitchers to finish up last week, but how would they combat the arms, and even more troubling, the bats, of the defending champions? Let’s dive into it!
Game 1: Maybe Minoru Iwata just needed me to be in attendance. I was able to watch his last two starts, and they were strong enough that the team should have won both. He really didn’t have it on this night, though, as he got knocked out midway through the fifth, having surrendered 10 hits and 2 walks on 119 pitches. The damage: 4 runs and a deficit the Tigers were not up to the challenge of overcoming. Coming off a 4-game winning streak and having renewed the hopes of their fans, the bats went stone cold against a dominant Kenji Ohtonari. They managed just 4 hits all night, including one extra base hit, and grounded into two double plays to negate half of their baserunners. While they did not strike out much, they also did not walk at all, something uncharacteristic of this team of selective hitters. The streak was over, and the days of sitting above .500 were limited to two. Final Score: Hawks 5, Tigers 0.
Game 2: Maybe good Wednesday starts after embarrassing Tuesday losses are becoming the norm. And maybe late game collapses as well. The Tigers staked starting pitcher Shintaro Fujinami a 5-1 lead after the top of the 5th, including home runs by Kosuke Fukudome and Takashi Toritani, and a near-home run (which ended up being a 2-run double) by Mauro Gomez. Fujinami gave up a 2-run blast to Matsuda in the bottom of the fifth, but the Tigers got a golden chance to get back at least one in the sixth, as Fukudome led off with a triple (again, mere centimeters from clearing the fence) to right center. Unfortunately, the batters that followed could not bring him the last 27 meters home. Fujinami gave up another run in the sixth, and felt them knocking on the door again in the seventh, with runners on 1st and 2nd, and none other than Matsuda at the dish with two outs. But our young ace bore down and got the strikeout, escaping the danger of another epic 7th inning collapse. The ninth inning brought a little more drama, but not in the same way as Tigers fans have grown accustomed to. Instead, this one was historic in nature. Closer Seung-hwan Oh had disposed of the first two hitters without issue, but had to face Nakamura for the final out. Some of you will remember him as the batter who lashed a 3-run walk off HR to right to end Game 4 of last year’s Nippon Series against this same pitcher. This time, however, Oh got the better of him, inducing a strikeout on a low sinker. The Tigers were back above .500 again! Final Score: Tigers 5, Hawks 4.
Game 3: Maybe the Tigers are just meant to be a minimal team that gets by with “just enough.” Through seven innings they looked almost as lifeless as they did on Tuesday (just two hits, both by Keisuke Kanoh including his first home run of the year). They did draw five walks, mind you. Starter Yuta Iwasada was shaky and gave up three runs in five innings, and with just six outs left, the Tigers looked ready to pack their bags and leave Fukuoka. But then they led off the eighth with back-to-back singles, then an out, then a walk to load the bases. Mr. Clutch, Fukudome, brought in two runners with a huge hit, and the game was knotted at three. It stayed that way through two outs in the bottom of the 11th, when their Matsuda hit a walk-off homerun (his third longball of the series) off Yuya Andoh. Game over, Tigers back at .500. Final Score: Hawks 5, Tigers 3.
Series Notes: Wednesday’s win was the Tigers’ first at Yafuoku Dome since May 24, 2014… These teams were atop the Interleague standings heading into the series and remained there when it ended. With just 3 games left (4 for some, including the Tigers) the pinstripes are guaranteed just their fifth interleague season in the black since its inception in 2005… Fukudome and Toritani have homered in the same game twice now this season. The last one was in Yokohama on May 22. The Tigers went on to lose that one 6-5 after opening a 5-0 lead… Talks of finding a replacement for slumping import Matt Murton cooled off, and so did the redhead. He went hitless (0-10, 1 walk and 9 grounders including 2 double plays) in the series, and now needs a strong series against the Buffaloes to restore management’s faith in him… Reliever Naoto Tsuru made his season debut on Tuesday in relief, throwing 1 2/3 innings of shutout ball. Perhaps he finally has something meaningful to update his Facebook page with… The Tigers end their interleague schedule with 3 at Kyocera Dome against the last-place Buffaloes. They will, however, likely face defending Sawamura Award winner Chihiro Kaneko in one of those games. Then on Tuesday, June 16, they close out their Pacific League battles at home against the Fighters. Here are the CL standings after Thursday’s play.