Series Recap: July 31-August 2, 2015

ultra2015The wild Central League is starting to separate itself a little bit. Ten short days ago, Just two games separated first from fifth, and no team was over the .500 mark. But the collapses of the Chunichi Dragons and DeNA Baystars, along with the continued mediocre play of the Hiroshima Carp has turned thing (at least for this week) into a 3-team race. So the Giants had the easy bill against the Dragons, while the Tigers and Swallows duked it out at Koshien Stadium for 3 days in the midst of the summer heat. Would this one live up to its billing as a fight for the top?

Matt Murton celebrates from the dugout as Ryota Arai rounds first base after his 4th inning blast to center.

Matt Murton celebrates from the dugout as Ryota Arai rounds first base after his 4th inning blast to center.

Game 1: The answer: 47. Quick, what’s the question? Nice try – it is the number of prefectures in Japan, but in this case we’re talking about the number of pitches thrown by ace Shintaro Fujinami in the first inning of Friday night’s game. He seemed to be laboring to get pitches over the plate, walking two before recording an out, and eventually giving up 4 runs before the Tigers bats even got their turn. He repeated his problems again in the fourth and was pulled with the score 1-6 for the visitors. Fortunately, the team brought their offense and grittiness to the park on this evening. Despite a few close strike calls (on 3-0 and 3-1 counts), Matt Murton got all of Yoshihisa Naruse’s full count offering (video clip here), and the lead was down to three. But wait! One Ryota Arai swing later, the lead was down to two! Perhaps fearing the pandemonium of giving up 3 straight bombs, Naruse walked Taiga Egoshi, who got bunted (what?) over to second before a Swallows error scored him. The deficit was down to one. The Swallows got one back in the next inning, as Kazuya Takamiya displayed all the control of today’s ace starter. But a bases loaded single by Kosuke Fukudome in the sixth inning tied the affair at 7. Then in the eighth, Mauro Gomez took a pitch on the hands to score a bases-loaded HBP run, and Murton knocked in two insurance runs immediately after, giving the home team a nice 3-run cushion. No exciting game at Koshien is complete without the requisite dramatics of closer Seung-hwan Oh, who gave up consecutive two-out doubles, then walked another before closing the door. Final Score: Tigers 10, Swallows 8.

Fujii stares up at Messenger in wonder, trying to figure out how the big man deals with the lack of run support.

Game 2: Unfortunately for the Tigers, starter Randy Messenger did not fare much better in the first inning than Fujinami did the day before. He allowed three singles and gave up a run on a sacrifice fly. He would later serve up a 2-run home run in the third inning, but held on until the end of the seventh without giving any more runs away. For their part, the offense was rather silent, scoring just a single run in the bottom of the third on a Gomez RBI single. Beyond the fifth inning, they got just one man on base – Ryota Imanari, who contributed two of the team’s six singles on the night. Despite being quite a drawn-out affair, this one lacked all the drama that Friday’s game provided. Final Score: Swallows 4, Tigers 1.

Sunday night's game had some fans climbing the walls in frustration.

Sunday night’s game had some fans climbing the walls in frustration.

Game 3: The team brought in struggling sophomore Suguru Iwazaki for another start as they hoped to close off their Ultra Summer with a win. The young southpaw had a tendency to start strong but not get through his final inning of work, and the same thing happened tonight, though much later than usual. He allowed just two hits in his first six innings of work before giving up two runs vs. one out in the seventh. The relievers poured lemon juice on the open wound, and the bats once again failed to do any whacking. The Tigers would hit the road riding a two game losing streak. Final Score: Swallows 5, Tigers 0.

Series Notes: Egoshi went 0-for-12 in this series with a walk and five strikeouts. He hit a few balls well, but some of the shimmer has worn off since his big showings in the previous three series… Murton became the first of the big three to break his homerless drought. Fukudome (14 games) and Gomez (16 games) are both mired in long power slumps that will hopefully end soon… Takamiya got optioned down to the farm after his poor showing on Friday, and Shoya Yamamoto got recalled. Catcher Shinji Komiyama made his first start of the year on Sunday, pairing with Iwazaki.

Here are the standings after play on Sunday night:

15-8-2 Standings

Monthly Tigers Magazine – August 2015

The August edition hit the stands today. My copy arrived in the mail last night. It came with five player cards: Shintaro Fujinami, Akira Iwamoto, Mauro Gomez, Shunsukeand legendary import Randy Bass. Each of the next 3 issues will come with 5 more cards.

2015AugustCoverHere is the table of contents for this issue:

  • Opening feature: Breaking Free from the CL Pack!
  • Interview: Masayuki Kakefu – Ultra Summer Exhibit
  • Close-up Interview: Kosuke Fukudome
  • Another Side View: Fukudome
  • Pinstripe Report: Muddled CL Summer
  • Tigers’ Diary: Masayuki Kakefu (Part 2 of 2)
  • Players’ Note: Yuto Morikoshi
  • Diary Interview: Ryota Arai
  • Ex-Tigers Questionnaire #3
  • Mazda All-Star Game Report
  • Tigers Farm Report
  • Take Care of my Son: Yuya Yokoyama
  • Tigers Data Analysis
  • Short Q & A: Koki Moriya
  • Teammates Talk About: Fumiya Araki
  • Advice Column: Katsuo Hirata

As always, if any of these really interest you and you’d like an English translation (or summary), drop your request in the comments section! I can’t promise anything but I’ll do what I can!

Mini-Series Recap – July 28-29, 2015

With the Road Trip of Death looming and a quick series in Nagoya on tap, the Tigers needed to sneak in a couple of road wins before coming home for one last Koshien Ultra Summer series. They were facing the last place Chunichi Dragons with just one problem: a history of losing at Nagoya Dome. Could they come home 3 games over .500? Let’s look at the games one by one.

Rare for a mid-reliever to get "Hero of the Night" but Andoh was clutch on Tuesday night.

Rare for a mid-reliever to get “Hero of the Night” but Andoh was clutch on Tuesday night.

Game 1: This one started poorly for the Tigers, both at the dish and in the field. They failed to put anyone on base in the first two innings, and starter Minoru Iwata surrendered a two-run home run in the bottom of the second. However, the floodgates opened in a huge way for the visitors in the top of the third. Taiga Egoshi walked, and five hits later (RBIs by Hiroki Uemoto, Kosuke Fukudome and two by Matt Murton) he was back at the plate again, and this time he knocked in two more runs. A two run deficit became a four run lead in just an inning. However, after a few calm innings, Iwata struggled again in the fifth and sixth, giving up a run in each frame and not completing the sixth. He left with the bases loaded and two outs. Fortunately, reliever Yuya Andoh managed to strike out their batter, getting out of that inning and then holding fort in the seventh as well. For the Tigers’ bats’ part, they did not record another hit the rest of the way – but their six run explosion held up as the “winning combo” relievers – Shinobu Fukuhara and Seung-hwan Oh – pitched clean innings to preserve the win. Final Score: Tigers 6, Dragons 4.

No Tigers fan is tired of seeing this: Taiga the Tiger hitting the long ball once again on Wednesday!

No Tigers fan is tired of seeing this: Taiga the Tiger hitting the long ball once again on Wednesday!

Game 2: Each pitcher surrendered a lead off hit in the first, but neither team scored. The Tigers opened the scoring in the third as Uemoto grounded out to second but broke up a double play, scoring Kazunari Tsuruoka from third. For his part, starter Atsushi Nohmi threw three great innings, but unraveled in the fourth. A leadoff double was followed by an infield single. With runners in the corners he induced a pop foul to third, giving hope for a scoreless fourth, but threw his next pitch wild, scoring a run. One out later (would have been an inning ending double play were it not for the WP), an RBI single gave the Dragons a 2-1 lead. Things stayed fairly calm in the middle innings, but the rookie of the week(s), Egoshi, hit a solo blast in the top of the 7th to tie the game at 2. Taiga the Tiger wasn’t done there, though. Murton drew a leadoff walk in the ninth, and two batters later, Egoshi hit a first-pitch double to left center, giving the Tigers the lead once again. Oh took the mound in the ninth for the second straight night, earning another save while allowing a two-out single. Final Score: Tigers 3, Swallows 2.

Series Notes: Mauro Gomez’s 16-game hitting streak ended on Tuesday as the slugger went 0-4. He followed it up with another hitless (0-3, HBP) night on Wednesday… Egoshi has started seven straight games now and appears to have won the center field position, at least for now. His average is still well below the Mendoza Line, but he has a lot of multi-base hits in his limited playing time so far this year. The team needs more “power hitting” so his low average can be swallowed a lot more easily because he makes his hits count… Iwata’s win on Tuesday was his first since the last game of interleague play, when he threw 140 pitches to beat the Nippon Ham Fighters… A few key moves in the seventh may have cost the Tigers a run or two. Cold-hitting Ryota Arai was left in against a right-handed pitcher instead of bringing in Ryota Imanari. A runner on for Egoshi would have meant a lead for the Tigers. Then with two outs, instead of pinch-hitting for Nohmi, they took an easy third out, leaving him in for the bottom of the inning. Perhaps Wada thought he would need his pinch hitters later in the game, but then he subbed Arai out for Imanari on defense in the seventh anyways… Tigers have Thursday off but the other Central League teams play, so standings will be updated after those games. Check here for full standings. (For now, they remain tied for first with the Swallows, three games above .500.)

Series Recap – July 24-26, 2015

It is completely illogical and unfathomable, and in all ways inconceivable that two .500 teams should be tied for the league lead as summer vacation started here in Japan. And yet that is exactly where the Central League found itself – the Yakult Swallows and Hanshin Tigers sat at the top, a game ahead of the Yomiuri Giants and just four games up on the last-place Chunichi Dragons. The Tigers donned “Ultra Summer” yellow jerseys for this series against the floundering Yokohama DeNA Baystars. Let’s see how they did in this series.

He won't get much recognition in the boxscore, but Imanari flashed some impressive leather in Friday night's opener.

He won’t get much recognition in the boxscore, but Imanari flashed some impressive leather in Friday night’s opener.

Game 1: I was able to take in this one from the first-base stands. Both teams started slowly, as the Tigers found themselves facing a solid starter, and in return they put their young phenom Shintaro Fujinami on the mound. Through four innings, the teams had combined for four hits. The pitching duel continued until the 7th, when it looked like Fujinami could be pulled (he had thrown 119 pitches before the jet balloon release), and Inoh could go the distance (through six innings he was still under 80 balls). However, a leadoff hit by Ryota Imanari was followed by a blast to left center by Taiga Egoshi, and the home team was on the board. Still, their starter remained in the game and survived the inning without any further damage. However, Kosuke Fukudome added an insurance run in the eighth with a sacrifice fly to the right field corner. Fujinami had now thrown 130+ pitches. Could Seung-hwan Oh be trusted with a 3-run lead? I’m not sure why, but the 21-year old came out for the ninth, kept the ‘Stars off the scoreboard and got the complete game win. He ended the game with a 152-pitch count – one I argued was far too high to be considered an excellent outing. Either way, he got the win. Final Score: Tigers 3, Baystars 0.

"So in baseball you just can't throw it there, son." Fukudome coaches Egoshi after an ugly error. -- Quote stolen from Aaron Covert.

“So in baseball you just can’t throw it there, son.” Fukudome coaches Egoshi after an ugly error. — Quote stolen from Aaron Covert.

Game 2: For the first time in over two months, the ball went to sophomore Suguru Iwazaki. He did not show enough in his first five starts of the season to get the call, and was still winless on the year. He started this one strongly, pitching four shutout innings and looking like a changed pitcher. Meanwhile, Matt Murton started the game with two doubles, the second of which brought in the game’s second run. With a little lead, how would Iwazaki do the rest of the way? He was most of the way through the fifth, when disaster struck. Ultimately hit came after hit, and he left without completing the inning. The Tigers were down a pair, due partially to a wickedly errant throw by Egoshi. Most of the rest of the way, the game was uneventful, and the Tigers bowed out weakly (just one hit after the third inning) in the middle game of the series. Final Score: Baystars 5, Tigers 2.

Taiga "Tiger" was at it again on Sunday, knocking in the third run of the game and collecting three hits.

Taiga “Tiger” was at it again on Sunday, knocking in the third run of the game and collecting three hits.

Game 3: The Tigers needed to take advantage of facing a fairly inexperienced pitcher, and in a way, they did. In each of the first three innings, they got a runner to third base, but only managed to capitalize in the second inning, when Takashi Toritani hit a 2-RBI single to right-center. Egoshi came through in the fifth with a two-out single to left, scoring another run for the home team. Starter Randy Messenger was in control in this one, throwing 7 shutout innings on 4 days’ rest. Oh bailed struggling set-up man Shinobu Fukuhara in the eighth, and finished the ‘Stars off in the ninth. Thanks to a dominant start by the fully rejuvenated American, the team won despite another night with too many runners left on base. Final Score: Tigers 3, Baystars 0.

Series Notes: Big Dominican Mauro Gomez is currently riding a 16-game hitting streak dating back to July 4. He doesn’t have a home run in 10 games, though his .287 average leads the team… Toritani picked up a modasho on Friday and again on Sunday, but went 0-4 in the middle game. He also had another error in the rubber match, though it did not result in a run… Ryota Arai got the start on Saturday but went hitless in four at-bats. He has yet to do anything to earn regular playing time this season… Akira Iwamoto took the mound for the first time in over two months in Saturday’s loss, allowing no runs in 1 ⅔ innings. He is likely to remain on the big club for the time being as a long reliever. Speaking of which, check out this table detailing Iwazaki’s six starts this year. Columns 3-5 show his good beginnings in 5 of 6 starts, and columns 6-8 show his catastrophic collapse in his last inning of work, 4 of which ended before the third out.

Date Opponent Good Start ER ERA Bad Inning ER ERA
04/02/15 Swallows 4 0 0.00 0.1 4 108.00
04/09/15 Baystars 7 0 0.00 0.1 2 54.00
04/16/15 Dragons 3 2 6.00 0.1 2 54.00
05/06/15 Dragons 5 1 1.80 1 1 9.00
05/17/15 Dragons 3 0 0.00 1 3 81.00
07/25/15 Baystars 4 0 0.00 0.2 3 40.50
Totals 26 3 1.04 3.2 15 36.82

My proposal: Use him as a long reliever. He appears to be able to get through the opposition’s order once, maybe twice, without issue. But as I understand baseball (and trust me, there’s a lot I still don’t know!), many starters try to get through the first few innings without using their whole arsenal. Perhaps Iwazaki does not have enough of an arsenal to fool batters more than once or twice. Let him work long relief the rest of the year, have him bust his butt to learn a new pitch in the offseason and give him another ride as starter next year. His ERA through 3 innings in all starts combines to 1.50 but climbs to 11.57 the rest of the way. Ah, the naive thoughts of a man who’s never played the game!

Here are the standings at the end of play on the 26th:

15-7-26 Standings

Series Recap – July 20-22, 2015

For the Central League, the All-Star Break may as well have been the offseason, and the remaining games a full season. The gap between all the teams was a mere 5 games (including 4 teams within a single game of first). To make things even more spring-like, no team was above .500! With fewer than 60 games left on tap, the importance of each matchup has become that much greater. The Tigers spend 9 of their first 11 games at Koshien Stadium before taking their annual “Road Trip of Death” in August while the high school national tournament is played on their home turf. The first series was against their longtime rivals, the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants.

Murton made a fine play in left field, butt... at the plate he was unable to capitalize on two big chances.

Murton made a fine play in left field, butt… at the plate he was unable to capitalize on two big chances.

Game 1: Facing Miles Mikolas for the second time this month, the team hoped to have more success than last time, when they fell 4-2. This time the ball was in the hands of Minoru Iwata, and he kept the game close for six innings, allowing just one run. That came after a booted grounder by third baseman Ryota Imanari (no error was charged to him on the play) in the first. Unfortunately for the Tigers, the Giants’ American import brought his A game and the team once again failed to give their pitcher any run support. In the ninth on a pop foul to first, Mauro Gomez dropped the ball (this one was called an error) and the Giants batter took full advantage of the second chance given to him, driving a Kazuya Takamiya slider over the right center wall. Final Score: Giants 2, Tigers 0.

The Americans delivered big-time on Tuesday: 8 shutout innings from Messenger and 2 RBIs from Murton.

The Americans delivered big-time on Tuesday: 8 shutout innings from Messenger and 2 RBIs from Murton.

Game 2: As the victim of poor run support in three straight July starts, Randy Messenger did what he needed to do to make sure he didn’t need much in this one. The rejuvenated righty hung in for 8 innings, avoiding a dangerous situation in the opening frame and shutting the Giants down completely on 129 pitches. As for the bats, they took their time warming up. It wasn’t until the sixth inning with two outs that the 25-inning scoreless drought ended. Matt Murton high a towering shot to left that was not far from either clearing the fence or landing in the fielder’s outstretched glove. It did neither, but cashed in two runners instead. The game got a little dramatic when Seung-hwan Oh came in to close things down. He surrendered a hit, allowed a stolen base, then gave up another hit, and a run scored. With one out to go, the winning run came to the plate. Fortunately, it was not the Giants’ day, and Messenger was able to pick up his first win since the game after Interleague play ended. Final Score: Tigers 2, Giants 1.

It wasn't the deepest hit of the night but it certainly was the most important. Ryota cleared the bases in the opening inning.

It wasn’t the deepest hit of the night but it certainly was the most important. Ryota cleared the bases in the opening inning.

Game 3: Atsushi Nohmi looked great right out of the gates in this one, needing just 23 pitches to get the first 8 outs. Then a “hit” (should have been an error to Takashi Toritani) caused him to labor the next three innings, but he managed to hold the Giants to just a single run in his six innings of work. For their part, the Tigers got on the board in the first, thanks to a Ryota Arai bases-clearing double. Rookie outfielder Taiga Egoshi extended the lead back to three runs in the sixth with a solo home run, his second on the year. Reliever Yuya Andoh allowed a solo home run in the seventh to bring the lead back down to two. Oh closed the game off with a rare clean inning. Final Score: Tigers 4, Giants 2.

Series Notes: Egoshi got recalled and started the last two games of the series, going 0-3 with 2 strikeouts Tuesday and 2-4 Wednesday. He is still hitting just .122 (6-49) on the year in his limited action. However, of his six hits, two have been home runs and one was a triple that was just centimeters from being another homer… Toritani continues to struggle in the field, collecting his 7th error of the year on Tuesday, failing to catch a first inning infield pop-up. He had just 5 errors all of last season… This was the second series of the year that the Tigers took from the Giants. The other came just before interleague play began, and was also played at Koshien. On the year, they are still just 7-10 against their nemeses. Here are the standings as of the end of play on Wednesday:

15-7-22 Standings

Mini-Series Recap – July 14 & 15, 2015

Manager Wada's magic number 86 has come up. The team's runs for/against differential sits at -86 on the season.

Manager Wada’s magic number 86 has come up. The team’s runs for/against differential sits at -86 on the season.

Two losses and a win, two losses and a win. What comes next in this pattern? If two losses, then there would be no time for a win – the team had just two games remaining before the all-star break. That being the case, they started two of their core pitchers on short rest at home against the Hiroshima Carp. Could they pull their way over the .500 mark before the weekend of rest?

The guys were all smiles on Tuesday. Nohmi pitched well for 7, Uemoto and Toritani got RBIs, and Imanari... was happy, too.

The guys were all smiles on Tuesday. Nohmi pitched well for 7, Uemoto and Toritani got RBIs, and Imanari… was happy, too.

Game 1: They certainly started this one right: Kosuke Fukudome, Mauro Gomez and Matt Murton collected two-out hits, the last one resulting in the first run of the game. The rebounding redhead struck again in the third inning with a run-scoring sacrifice fly, and the Tigers broke open a 2-0 lead. Starter Atsushi Nohmi had the game under control as well, pitching solidly in his 7 innings (6 hits, 1 unearned run) of work. The Tigers took full control with runs in the 5th (Hiroki Uemoto 2-run double, Takashi Toritani RBI single), and despite a run surrendered by Shinobu Fukuhara (someone give this old man some rest!) the outcome was never in question. Back to .500! Final Score: Tigers 5, Carp 2.

Randy Messenger steps up to the plate as the sun sets at Koshien on Wednesday night.

 
Game 2: This one looked bad from the onset, though having Randy Messenger on the mound means you will always have a chance to win. He pitched a strong game, going six innings and giving up a single run on 4 hits. For their part, the Tigers brought up perhaps their least intimidating lineup of the season. Shunsuke in center (mind you, who else will step up there?) batting second, and Katsuhiko Saka starting at third base. Yes, Ryota Imanari has been struggling mightily. But why not Ryota Arai? Oh right, the whole righty-vs-lefty “advantage” Wada loves to “exploit.” So let’s bring in a .154 lefty with no pop instead of our righty who actually can hit a ball with some authority! The results were predictable. No offense to the offense, but they were offensive. Lots of base runners, mind you – two guys got plunked (yep, the two I chose to diss for being in the starting lineup) and six took first on balls. But despite several chances with runners in scoring position, the team could not muster a single run. In the bottom of the sixth, the 7th, 8th and 9th batters were due up. Would they pull Messenger for a pinch hitter? “No chance,” I said to my buddy, trying to sound like I knew baseball better than anyone else, “Even if there’s a guy in scoring position and they bring in a pinch hitter and score a run, they would have to depend on the bullpen to hold down the fort for 3 innings afterwards, and we all know that never happens. And if the first two guys get out, I can guarantee they’ll let Randy hit and then pitch at least the 7th, maybe even the 8th.” I’m not Wada though, and I don’t call the shots. Two outs into the inning, they pulled the big righty in favor of the hitless Yuto Morikoshi. He flied out to center and we were left to ask our bullpen to keep it close. They couldn’t. Recently recalled Kosuke Katoh walked a guy who got bunted over to second, and Yuya Andoh proceeded to give up a single on his third pitch. Now 2-0. The Carp added one more in the ninth off birthday boy Seung-hwan Oh for good measure, and the game ended without a sound from the Tigers’ fans. Final Score: Carp 3, Tigers 0.

Someone looks a little too happy about beating his old teammates.

Someone looks a little too happy about beating his old teammates.

Series Notes: Gomez now has an 11-game hitting streak, while Murton’s 9-game run ended in Wednesday’s loss… Oh has thrown just one scoreless frame in his last 4 outings, and has not thrown a clean inning since June 27. Perhaps it’s time for my proposal to be given a look!… Messenger is now winless since taking the first game after league play resumed on June 20, despite giving up 2, 1, 4 and 1 earned runs in his starts. This lack of run support is killing the starters, who have to be feeling pressure to completely shut out the opposition… The Tigers are tied for second at present, just a half game behind the DeNA Baystars, who swept the Giants to take over first. Our guys start the second half with six straight at home against these two teams, and the rest of the season could depend largely on how they fare coming out of the gates. I will be in attendance next Friday and hope to see a win for a change! (I’m 1-3 so far this season.) No standings graphic here, but check here for updated CL and PL rankings.

Series Recap – July 7-9, 2015

Most signs pointed to the Tigers having a good series this week. They were riding a 6-game winning streak at Muskat Stadium (Kurashiki, Okayama, where Tuesday’s game was held) and a 9-game winning streak at Koshien (where they played Wednesday and Thursday). They also had a two-game winning streak, sat in first place and were facing the last-place Chunichi Dragons. Their cleanup hitters were clicking (.346, .405 and .379 since league play resumed). However, they were also facing some young strong pitchers in the first two games, and were trotting out their two struggling veterans. Let’s see how this series played out in a game-by-game summary.

"There goes my chance at winning!" Another poor show of support for Iwata on Tuesday.

“There goes my chance at winning!” Another poor show of support for Iwata on Tuesday.

Game 1: Starter Minoru Iwata has not been himself since he was given the task of shutting down the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the last game of interleague play on June 16*. Fortunately he came out strong in this one, allowing just one run (on a sac fly) over 7 innings. Unfortunately for the Tigers, that was all the Dragons needed as our guys could not bring anyone home in this one. A huge chance in the second (runners on 2nd & 3rd with no outs) was nullified by a double play on a base running miscue. The Dragons added two more insurance runs off Hiroaki Saiuchi late. Final Score: Dragons 3, Tigers 0.

Sorry, guys. Nohmi looks back, WAY back as Luna admires his first inning home run.

Sorry, guys. Nohmi looks back, WAY back as Luna admires his first inning home run.

Game 2: Speaking of struggling starters, Atsushi Nohmi came into this one having not won a game since June 24 and not impressing in any of his losses. He started this one off on the wrong foot as well, giving up a monstrous 2-run home run in the first frame. The Tigers struggled at the plate again in this one, registering just three hits in the first six innings. The Dragons tagged three more on Nohmi before he left (ego-) bruised up midway through the sixth. The lone solace and offense from the Tigers came in the bottom of the 7th, when Matt Murton took the first pitch deep to left center. Other opportunities presented themselves but in two cases, line drives right to their infielders ended rallies. Tuesday the Muscat streak ended, Wednesday the Koshien streak was over, too. Final Score: Dragons 5, Tigers 1.

Wild pitch! Murton avoids it, catcher misses it, Tigers win it.

Wild pitch! Murton avoids it, catcher misses it, Tigers win it.

Game 3: So the team needed a big night out of Takumi Akiyama to avoid a sweep. This was his first start of the year, and while he has shown potential in his time with the club, he just has not produced good numbers since his debut in 2010. In this one he looked good early on, and got a lot of help from his fielders. Through five, he had allowed no runs, while Murton drove in Hiroki Uemoto in the first, and Mauro Gomez hit another towering blast in the fifth to give the young starter a decent lead. Unfortunately, he did almost exactly what Shoya Yamamoto had done a few days prior. In his final inning, he lost whatever he had going, giving up two runs. Fortunately he got out of the sixth with a tie, and the game remained knotted until extra innings. In the 11th, Uemoto led off with a walk, then was (yawn) predictably bunted over to second by (yawn) Yamato. Pinch hitter Keisuke Kanoh also walked, as did Gomez, loading the bases for Murton. Talk about your funny finishes. The first pitch to our redhead (who got 3 hits today) was wild, and Uemoto came home to end it. Final Score: Tigers 3, Dragons 2.

Series Notes: *On June 16, despite an 11-2 lead after 8 innings, the team had Iwata take the mound in the ninth. Was it his request? I have no idea, but managers need to take responsibility for their careless overuse of pitchers’ arms. He threw 140 pitches and allowed 2 runs in the 9th that game, and struggled in 3 starts after that… Tuesday’s shutout loss was the Tigers’ eighth of the year. It is tied for worst in the Central… The Tigers have now had an incredible six games end in walk-offs against the Dragons this season. They’ve been on the winning side in four of these. One ended with a hit-by-pitch (March 28 – Kentaro Sekimoto), one was tied with a bases-loaded walk (May 6 – Ryota Arai had the game winning hit after that), and Thursday’s game ended on a wild pitch.

Here are the CL standings after tonight’s game.

15-7-9 Standings

Series Recap – June 30-July 2, 2015

It must have been getting lonely at the top. The Hanshin Tigers were the lone Central League team with a winning record heading into the last series of June, and they were riding a 7-game undefeated streak that stretched back to the middle of the month. Their best hitters were heating up, and their starters were getting the job done. This was the team fans were waiting to see all season! Could they keep it up as they started the summer with a 6-game road trip to the Kanto area?

Iwata joined Iwazaki as

Iwata joined Iwazaki as “kuyashii” (frustrated) pitchers who couldn’t get the job done. He would be joined a day later by fellow Iwa, Yuta Iwasada. Are they all told to use that same word when they can’t get through six innings?

Game 1: The big story was whether or not ironman Takashi Toritani was alright. After getting beaned in the back last week, his health was in question and his slump at the plate prompted Wada to slide him down the order to seventh. He responded with four hits in four at-bats, including opening the score in the 4th inning with a 2-run double off the left-center wall. His final hit of the game was an infield hit down the right field line. He beat the throw to first, but because of poor defense by the Swallows, a third Tigers run crossed the plate, tying the score with less than two innings to go. Starter Minoru Iwata continued to struggle with control and concentration at the plate, particularly the third time through the opponents’ order, and he was pulled before he could complete the sixth. He allowed 3 runs on 7 hits and 2 walks. Unfortunately for the Tigers, their most consistent reliever to date, Shinobu Fukuhara, fell apart and could not keep the game tied in the bottom of the eighth. He immediately put himself in a bad place by allowing a leadoff hit, a stolen base and a walk. One out later, he allowed two more hits, and was lucky to get out of the inning with just a one-run deficit, as two Swallows baserunners got tagged out on the base paths. The Tigers could not mount a rally in the ninth, and their winning streak came to an end. Final Score: Swallows 4, Tigers 3.

Game 2: For the first time since June 13th, the Tigers were forced to use one of their “fringe starters” as Yuta Iwasada took the mound. The 2013 1st round pick has been trying to prove himself capable and ready to join the rotation permanently, but struggled in the third inning of this one, giving up three runs and leaving the rest of the work to a shaky bullpen. Youngster Hiroaki Saiuchi, who pitched 2 2/3 innings of clean ball against Hiroshima to preserve a tie last week, looked to do the same here but instead lost his control in the fifth. Kazuya Takamiya also proved Wada’s lefty-vs-lefty theory wrong on this night, and after six innings of work, the birds had put six runs on the board. For the Tigers’ part, Matt Murton continued his stellar play with a solo shot in the second, and also made a brilliant catch at the wall later in the game. Starting catcher Ryutaro Umeno tied the game at 3 in the fifth with a 2-run blast, but it was all for naught. Down 6-3 late, pinch hitter Ryota Imanari singled but had his work negated by a Keisuke Kanoh double play. This was followed by a Mauro Gomez home run (his 10th on the year) but since it was just a solo shot, the team remained down two. In the ninth, Ryota Arai reached base on an error, and pinch hitter (what?) Kosuke Fukudome nearly justified his recent deification with a deep blast that barely missed tying the game. With runners on second and third and just one out, the team had a legitimate chance to tie the game, even win it, but a Katsuhiko Saka grounder to the mound and a Kohei Shibata fly out ended the game. Final Score: Swallows 6, Tigers 4.

(Not from Thursday's game.) Not sure what possessed Wada to put Imanari in the leadoff slot. My guess is the whole team was deflated when they saw the starting lineup (not Imanari's fault - he's been hitting well lately).

(Not from Thursday’s game.) Not sure what possessed Wada to put Imanari in the leadoff slot. My guess is the whole team was deflated when they saw the starting lineup (not Imanari’s fault – he’s been hitting well lately).

Game 3: Where Wednesday called for a righty-heavy lineup (the Swallows started a lefty), Thursday begged Wada to do the opposite. He trotted out six lefties to face a right-handed pitcher, even giving Imanari the leadoff role, and putting Fumiya Araki in the two-slot (benching Hiroki Uemoto after his poor fielding and hitting on Wednesday). Toritani stayed down in sixth, and Shibata got the start in center, batting seventh. Certainly a very different lineup than the ones that had recorded nine or more hits in nine straight games. It showed, as the team generated just five hits (three from the recently dependable cleanup hitters), and the pitching staff once again got pounded, completing the sweep in style. Atsushi Nohmi lasted just 4 innings, taxing the bullpen even further, and Hiroya Shimamoto allowed 5 runs in the eighth, ensuring him a spot on the farm team from tomorrow. Final Score: Swallows 10, Tigers 1.

And with that, the Yakult Swallows find themselves in first. Four different teams have occupied the top spot now since the end of May, and once again no Central League team is over the .500 mark. Here are the current standings.

15-7-2 Standings

Series Recap – June 5-8, 2015

While sweeping the Lotte Marines would have been ideal, winning the last two of the series was enough to give the Tigers a little momentum and confidence heading into the hardest part of the interleague schedule. They would host the first place Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters over the weekend, and are scheduled to wrap up with two road series, one against the defending champions and the other against their cross-town rivals. The team with the worst batting average in Nippon pro baseball was slated to face two of the best pitchers in the Pacific right from the start – Shohei Ohtani and Mitsuo Yoshikawa. Would they be able to muster enough offense to keep the momentum going? Or would they sputter once again and fall back down in the standings?

Uemoto's raised hand is barely higher than Messenger's head! The two combined to give the Tigers a narrow victory on Saturday afternoon.

Uemoto’s raised hand is barely higher than Messenger’s head! The two combined to give the Tigers a narrow victory on Saturday afternoon.

Game 1: While they had their best pitcher going on Saturday (after Friday was rained out), we had our resurgent ace, Randy Messenger, to combat him. It truly was a pitching duel for the ages, as both hurlers recorded strikeout after strikeout, and blank inning after blank inning. The lone exception was in the fourth, when the Tigers managed three hits (Kohei Shibata, Matt Murton and an RBI single by Hiroki Uemoto), eking a run out after strikeouts by mashers Mauro Gomez and Kosuke Fukudome threatened to end the inning without a score. Ohtani was his usual self the rest of the way, going seven strong and allowing just the single run while striking out 11. However, our hero today was the big man, Messenger. He threw eight shutout innings, striking out eight and only allowing two runners to reach second base (one on his own fielding error in the fifth). In the hero interview (click here for audio), he made sure to give credit to his fielders – Gomez made a nice diving catch to record a double play in the 2nd, and Uemoto flipped the ball to first with his glove to nail the runner in time in the 6th. Closer Seung-hwan Oh came in to finish the game, and showed no signs of being rattled by last week’s nightmare. He struck out the side. The Tigers are back at .500! Final Score: Tigers 1, Fighters 0.

All nines on the heroes' podium on this day - Kanoh and Murton drove in 3 of the team's 4 runs.

All nines on the heroes’ podium on this day – Kanoh and Murton drove in 3 of the team’s 4 runs.

Game 2: Though he recorded a hit on Saturday, the talk of the press still surrounded Murton and rumors of signing a sixth foreigner and shipping Matt down to the farm. He came out on fire in this one, hitting a drive to right field in the first. He would score on a Gomez double, and the Tigers had an early lead once again. Starter Atsushi Nohmi gave up a home run in the second to the Fighters’ pipsqueak Oka, and the game was tied until the fifth. Once again, Murton came through, this time with a rare hit to left field, scoring Takashi Toritani. The Tigers accomplished a rare feat (for them), scoring in three consecutive innings, as pinch-hitter Keisuke Kanoh got a long-awaited RBI hit in the sixth, and Murton capped off his strong night with an RBI double to left (again!) in the seventh. Despite scares from the bullpen, Oh once again closed things down in the ninth with another clean inning, and the Tigers went over .500 for the first time since April 5th. Final Score: Tigers 4, Fighters 1.

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Game 3: Due to inclement weather today, this game will not be played until sometime next week (June 15-18).

Series Notes: Since allowing a hit in the top of the 10th against the Marines on June 3, Oh has mowed down 11 straight batters, 8 on strikeouts. He has 3 saves and a win on this Tigers 4-game win streak. In just 1.5 seasons with the team, he has racked up 55 saves and is now 4th all-time in team history. Apparently the “stone-faced Buddha” does not get rattled too easily… Messenger struck out Fighters pitcher Ohtani in all three of his plate appearances. The pitcher everyone anticipated seeing hit, failed to make any connection at all… The latest reports indicate that Ryota Arai is ready to join the team on Tuesday, and that Kentaro Sekimoto and Tsuyoshi Nishioka are doing what they can to rehabilitate. The former will likely be back much sooner than the latter. No timetable has beenset for either player, as of now… Despite having the worst batting average (.235) and second-worst ERA (3.59) in NPB over the course of the whole season, the Tigers have the 4th best average (.268) and top ERA (2.47) during interleague play. Perhaps they are heating up as summer comes along… The Pacific League has been flexing its muscle during this mini-season, going 35-32-3 so far, and will play the bulk of the interleague schedule at home. Owning the best record among CL teams has benefited the Tigers immensely in the standings, as seen below. They are actually just one strong series away from taking first place… The team will travel to Fukuoka tomorrow to play three games at Yafuoku Dome, then come back to Kansai and play three more at Kyocera Dome against host Orix Buffaloes. No more rainouts until regular league play resumes.

15-6-7 Standings

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