Game Commentary – Friday, July 24, 2015

 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.

Ultra Yellow!

 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!

Great Day to Be Me!

I got to Koshien Stadium around 11am, despite not having a ticket to tonight’s game or even the intention of attending. And I didn’t. But I did get to take in the Koshien Stadium Museum for the first time ever, and followed it up with a tour of the stadium that included a chance to watch some of the team’s pre-game practice. I got to meet up with one of my Tiger buddies who was in town from Tokyo, spent the day with my awesome wife… and then the Tigers won their game tonight! Not a bad day overall! Here are some pics/explanations of what I got to see today.

 

Nothing really special here, just a big Tigers logo in the middle of the museum.

  

Towards the end of the museum, you can head outside and stand right in the middle of the center field stands. what a view! Great weather, too!

  

The Tigers drafted me as their official English tweeter! Ha, I wish!

  

Love the 80th Anniversary banners. The 4th one here is #4, Gene Bacque.

  

At the start of the tour, we got a view of the visitors’ indoor training facility. It felt like we were at the zoo, looking at a bunch of rabbits through a glass window. Do not feed the animals. Do not tap the glass.

  

Gomez and Murton take theoir cuts during an early afternoon batting practice.

 

Series Recap – June 2-4, 2015

It was a beautiful night for a baseball game on Tuesday as the Tigers hosted the Chiba Lotte Marines.

 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.

“Stone-faced Buddha” Oh tries to regain his composure after a nightmarish ninth on Tuesday.

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.

What are you so happy about and who are you running from, Tori?

What are you so happy about and who are you running from, Tori?

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.

Egoshi and Iwasada showed us tonight that the kids are alright.

Egoshi and Iwasada showed us tonight that the kids are alright.

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:

15-6-4 Standings

Nightmare at Koshien

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!!!)