On Friday night, the Tigers began their “Ultra Summer” (ウル虎の夏) campaign at Koshien Stadium. They gave out free yellow replica jerseys to all in attendance, and will do so for the remainder of this series, as well as the entire next series (July 31-August 2, vs. Yakult Swallows). It is a wonderful way to “color the stadium yellow” and draw crowds to the last two series before their annual August road trip starts.
I was fortunate to be at last night’s game, a 3-0 Tigers victory over the visiting Yokohama DeNA Baystars. Starting pitcher Shintaro Fujinami went the distance, striking out twelve and throwing a ridiculous 152 pitches. He was named co-hero of the night, alongside Taiga Egoshi, the first rookie in 35 years (Akinobu Okada was the last) to hit home runs in consecutive games. Fujinami now has 8 wins on the year, 5 complete games, an NPB-best 132 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.43, good for 4th in the CL. This all sounds quite impressive, especially for a kid who just turned 21 in April.
I would argue that last night’s performance was less-than-ideal in some ways.
1) His pitch count is incredibly high for a game that featured just 5 hits and 2 walks. Sure, he struck out twelve, and those generally require more pitches than other kinds of outs. But let’s look at how he got those strikeouts. ONE was on three straight pitches, FOUR were on 1-2 counts, FIVE were on 2-2 counts and TWO were in full count situations. He used his fastball to get 11 of the 12 strikeouts, six of which were called and six of which were swung on and missed. (The other was on a cutter.) All this to say what? It looks as though Shintaro is laboring a little too hard to get strikeouts instead of trying to induce grounders or popups. Case in point:
2) Outside of the sacrifice bunt laid down by the Baystars pitcher, Fujinami required twelve pitches to get the guy out two more times (neither of which were strikeouts). He also needed 5 pitches to get their #8 batter out once (and five more to strike him out once). These are hitters that should go down pretty easily. Instead, of the four outs recorded by these two, Shintaro threw 22 pitches. Too many for #8 and 9 batters. Know your opponents. If they are contact hitters, find a pitch that induces weak grounders and use them. That, or go for 3 (or 4) pitch strikeouts instead of throwing ball 1 and 2 on 0-2 counts (trust me, it happened a lot last night).
3) He made a poor decision in the field on a bunt, lunging to tag the runner out (and missing), then throwing errantly to first. Fortunately it did not result in a run against, but very easily could have, as the Baystars found themselves with runners on 2nd and 3rd with just one out in the third inning because of the blunder.
In conclusion, Fujinami does not seem to have a “go-to” pitch to get outs, other than using his fastball on third strikes. He needs to find that pitch in order to keep his pitch counts down to preserve his arm for the next three months.
He has outstanding potential, and I really believe he could succeed in the majors after a few more years of dominating NPB ball. He doesn’t quite have the dreamy numbers of Shohei Ohtani or the experience of Kenta Maeda, but still, he has been (justly) compared with Yu Darvish at this point in his career. Let’s see how this one unfolds.
In other great news, third baseman Ryota Imanari played outstanding defense, saving at least three hits over the course of the game. In the second, he used his reflexes to nab a Lopez liner. Then in the fourth, he lunged back towards the third base line (despite playing closer to short) to grab a sure double, then fired a bullet to first in time to get the out. Lastly, in the eighth he leapt high to catch a Matsumoto line drive.
Said Imanari, “Usually when Fujinami is on the mound, the righties don’t pull a lot of balls. I didn’t know what the coaches would say if I missed the few that came my way.”
He also contributed on the offense, with a leadoff single in the seventh. He scored on Egoshi’s blast to left center (see video below).
It was a great night to be at the park. The crowd was enthusiastic as always, the food was good as always, and the breeze from the seaside was nice, too! Sometimes being up in row 60 isn’t so bad! Here’s to hoping the Tigers can keep this momentum (3 straight wins now) going!