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

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

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!

ASB – Report Card Time! Part 2

Yesterday we took a look at how the Hanshin Tigers did in the field and at the plate. Today we look back at how the hurlers have performed to date. I will look at the steady starters one by one, then the spot starters as a whole, the relievers as a whole with special focus on the back end of the bullpen. Here… we… go!

"Sunday Shin-chan" has come to the rescue many times this year.

“Sunday Shin-chan” has come to the rescue many times this year.

Shintaro Fujinami: I don’t think any pitcher in baseball has as many unearned runs as our young phenom. That can mean a few things: 1) the spin on his pitches make hit balls bounce funny, resulting in errors; 2) the team plays a little more nervously behind him; 3) the score keepers are generous with him, charging more errors to the fielders than usual; 4) he has problems putting errors behind him and getting the final outs of innings. I tend to believe the latter two to be true. Still, this guy is something else to watch pitch. His rough April (1 win, 3.66 ERA) was quickly forgotten as he got really hot in May (0.88 ERA) and played quite well in June (2.70) as well. The kid also won MVP honors at Game 1 of the All-Star matches, and has been named to nearly every national team in the past year. The present is quite bright, but the future could be even brighter. Overall Grade: A-

Minoru Iwata: Long known as the pitcher who can’t buy run support, Iwata’s adventures continued this year. He has been quite consistent so far, keeping his ERA in the low 3’s much of the season. While he only had one outing that could be called “dominant” he also has not thrown any absolute stinkers, either. He flirted with a perfect game in April but it all unraveled in the 7th and he didn’t even earn the victory. Still, he has a decent shot at his first double-digit win season since 2008. Let’s hope the team can show this steady #3 pitcher some love the rest of the way. Overall Grade: B-

Messenger has been the team's best pitcher since rejoining the team on May 29.

Messenger has been the team’s best pitcher since rejoining the team on May 29.

Randy Messenger: The season could not have started much worse for the big workhorse from Nevada. By May 10, his ERA was 5.88 – worst in the Central League – and he got suddenly demoted to the farm for most of the rest of the month. Upon his return, though, he has been lights out: a June ERA of 0.87 and his July ERA sits at 2.25 so far. Talk about regaining ace status! Look for more of the same from the big man the rest of the way. He seems to have found his groove. The team will need his best if it hopes to contend. They could stand to give him a little more run support, too, mind you. Overall Grade: B-

Atsushi Nohmi: Many worried about our ace of years past after a shaky 2014. He came to camp and worked harder than anyone, throwing more bullpens than the team expected. It looked as though it would pay off, as he started the new season very strongly. Through April 30, his ERA was an ace-like 2.08. But since then it has steadily risen (4.19 in May, 4.50 in June and an unsightly 5.40 so far in July). It might be fatigue, or it might be age. Either way, the team needs to use him a little more strategically the rest of the way. Perhaps more rest, perhaps shorter starts. But they cannot expect him to do what he has done in the past. Overall Grade: C-

The Spot Starters: Includes Akira Iwamoto, Suguru Iwazaki, Mario Santiago, Yuya Yokoyama, Yuta Iwasada, Shoya Yamamoto, Takumi Akiyama. Many of these guys put together great first starts, but either fizzled out or never got a second look. None really looks ready to take the 5th (or 6th) spot in the rotation just yet, but someone’s got to fill in the rest of the way. Who will it be? I personally hope Iwazaki can find his touch again, and perhaps Iwasada or Yamamoto could round it out. Without consistency from the back end of the rotation, though, it’s going to be a rough second half. Overall Grade: C

Uh-Oh? Oh No? Oh boy? We want "Oh Yeah" the rest of the way!

Uh-Oh? Oh No? Oh boy? We want “Oh Yeah” the rest of the way!

Seung-hwan Oh: Fans of the team are familiar with the drama that this Korean brings to the mound in close games. His season actually started quite poorly. Despite giving up just one run, he allowed more base runners than usual, causing fans to tighten their grips on remote controls and smartphones. He settled in quite nicely through May, and had one major meltdown in early June. July, though, has been a very ugly month. Through six outings, his ERA on the month is 8.53, and he has given up three home runs in that span. His job appears secure, if only because there is not one else on the squad who could take his place. However, I expect more consistency from someone who is a closer. His good times are great, but his bad times have been occurring too frequently. Overall Grade: C

Shinobu Fukuhara: Used almost exclusively as a set-up man (8th inning before handing the reins to Oh), the 38-year old has been incredible this season. Until recently his ERA was under one, but has now risen to 1.67 after a rough July. I personally believe he needs more rest, and perhaps overuse (36 appearances already) will render him less effective the rest of the way. Still, there’s a reason he was named co-MVP of the first half by manager Wada. Overall Grade: A

Andoh has been great at times, awful at others this year.

Andoh has been great at times, awful at others this year.

The Rest of the ‘Pen: Includes Yuya Andoh (3.72), Ryoma Matsuda (5.52), Kazuya Takamiya (3.38), Hiroya Shimamoto (9.35), Kazuyuki Kaneda (5.19), Daiki Enokida (10.38), Kentaro Kuwahara (8.53), Tsuyoshi Ishizaki (11.05), Hiroaki Saiuchi (2.89), Tatsuya Kojima (7.00), Kazuya Tsutsui (0.00), Naoto Tsuru (3.38), more. Awful. Inconsistent. They make close games blowouts, and are the cause of many a changed channel in this home and probably many more across the nation. As bad as the bats have been this year, the bullpen might be even worse. The ERAs of these guys would give the best Indian mathematicians headaches. Only Takamiya, Saiuchi and Tsutsui have been somewhat decent; the latter two have only played in the past month or so. Overall Grade: F

Aggregate Arms: The bats are pretty lean, but the pitchers aren’t really doing their part, either. Team ERA (3.89) is second worst in NPB (only better than the Chiba Lotte Marines), and the number of huge blowout losses is disheartening. Some hurlers are doing their part to keep the team in games, but it seems like whenever Randy or Iwata or another pitcher holds the other team to 2 or fewer runs, we still end up on the losing end more often than not. In that area, we cannot fault the pitchers. However, the number of times I have seen pitchers say “I wasn’t able to give my team a chance to win. I’m sorry” is uncountable. Overall Grade: D

Series Recap – July 10-12, 2015

夢はつぶれる、未来はつぶれる ぼくとわたしの大きな夢は いつもの負けで いつもの阪神… 阪神!

Yume wa tsubureru, mirai wa tsubureru   Boku to watashi no o-kina yume wa  Itsumo no make de, itsumo no Hanshin… HANSHIN!

(My dreams have been squashed, my future is squashed. Your big dreams and mine, always losers, always Hanshin… HANSHIN!)

Coming into this series, the boys were rocking a 3-6 record since June 30 and were riding a 4-game losing streak at Tokyo Dome. Let’s look quickly at how this series against the hated Giants went down.

“We might actually come back and win this one!”
“Nah, you’re just pulling my leg aren’t you?”

Game 1: The game started off well enough, with Kosuke Fukudome brought Shunsuke home on a sacrifice fly in the first, giving starter Randy Messenger a one-run lead before he threw a single pitch. Unfortunately that lead disappeared in the second with the Giants putting up a two-spot, and the lead further increased with two more runs in the sixth. Messenger ended the night giving up six hits, six walks and striking out five in six innings of work. The Tigers scored one more in the seventh on a Kentaro Sekimoto grounder. No RBI hits in this game for the Tigers. Final Score: Giants 4, Tigers 2.

Fujinami couldn't get his leg up on the competition in this one. A rare bad outing from the team's

Fujinami couldn’t get his leg up on the competition in this one. A rare bad outing from the team’s “future ace.”

Game 2: This team just has a knack for losing by huge margins. Starter Shintaro Fujinami followed yesterday’s 8-walk game with 7 (if you count hit batsmen) of his own in 5 2/3 innings, as he gave up a season-worst 7 runs and struck out five. He allowed 14 guys to reach base, and Ryoma Matsuda got tagged badly as well, resulting in a brutal loss yet again. The lone bright spot was Fukudome’s solo blast to deep right in the 4th inning when the game was still close. Matt Murton‘s sacrifice fly RBI in the sixth gave the team a little hope, but that was dashed in the bottom of the inning. Final Damage: Giants 11, Tigers 2.

How this guy's got that much spring in his legs, I have no idea. Fukudome lays out to make a key out in the ninth inning.

How this guy’s got that much spring in his legs, I have no idea. Fukudome lays out to make a key out in the ninth inning.

Game 3: To avoid the sweep, Minoru Iwata would have to be at his best, as the Giants brought their ace (Tomoyuki Sugano) to the mound. Our lefty was going on 4 days’ rest for the first time all year, and while he pitched well against the Dragons on Tuesday, he was pretty awful in his three starts before that. But he held in strong against the surging Evil Empire, allowing just 1 run in five innings. For their part, the Tigers got on the scoreboard first in this one, with Fukudome recording an RBI in his third straight. The game remained tied until the eighth, when the visitors got the better of Canadian reliever Scott Mathieson. A Murton double was followed by four straight hits/walks, then a sacrifice fly. Another 9th inning home run allowed by closer Seung-hwan Oh put everyone on the edge of their seats to end this one, but the Tigers held on. Final Score: Tigers 4, Giants 2.

Here are the standings after all the action on Sunday.

15-7-12 Standings

The Tigers have just two more games before the All-Star Game: a two-game home stand against the Carp. I’ll be at one of them and look forward to the team being over .500 heading into the break. GO TIGERS!

Series Recap – July 3-5, 2015

I got a phone call on Saturday morning from Tigers legend Gene Bacque. The day after the team played in its 10,000th regular season game, he wanted to tell me that he was the pitcher in the team’s 3000th ever game. It was August 15, 1963 (3 days after his 26th birthday) and the team beat the Kokutetsu Swallows 4-2 in Tokyo. The team again put a foreigner on the mound for its memorial game on Friday night, this time in Yokohama against the DeNA Baystars. Riding a 3 game losing streak, could Randy Messenger lead them out of the mini-slump?

Oh NO! Our closer got roughed up yet again on Friday night.

Oh NO! Our closer got roughed up yet again on Friday night.

Game 1: For eight innings, he did just that. Messenger pitched brilliantly, allowing just 5 hits and one unearned run, striking out a dozen guys while walking just two. He left the game after 142 pitches and a 3-1 lead, thanks to a 2-run single by Yamato and a solo home run by Takashi Toritani. The Baystars pressed, especially in the eighth (when the lone run scored after Toritani’s errant throw to first allowed a 1-out runner to advance to second. The inning would have ended before Tsutsugoh’s RBI double were it not for the error. Still, with a 3-1 lead and closer Seung-hwan Oh entering the game, fans were confident that victory was ours. Guess again. Oh gave up a single, then a 2-run home run, then another single, a sacrifice bunt and a walk-off double. Tigers fans and players left the stadium in shock as the 10,000th game in team history ended about as poorly as even the most pessimistic followers could imagine. Final Score: Baystars 4, Tigers 3.

The man's bat just won't stop crushing balls. Baystars pitchers got a double dose of Fukudome's resurgence on Saturday.

The man’s bat just won’t stop crushing balls. Baystars pitchers got a double dose of Fukudome’s resurgence on Saturday.

Game 2: The last time Oh had blown a save, the team took the field the next game and staked their starter a 8-0 lead. (We won’t mention what happened next.) Hiroki Uemoto made it look like they would do the same on this day, his 29th birthday. He took the first pitch to deep left, giving the team a 1-0 lead (GIF here). It stayed that way until the 4th, when Kosuke Fukudome continued his hot season with a solo jack of his own. Toritani bumped the lead even higher in the 5th with an RBI single through the right side of the infield. Just before starter Shoya Yamamoto left the game after 5 innings, the Baystars managed a 2-spot, but he still left with the lead. Before any other Tigers pitcher could take the mound, though, Fukudome struck again, extending the team’s lead to 6-2 with a 3-run blast. However, with the Tigers’ relief squad, 4 runs is not always enough. The ‘Stars scratched and clawed their way back into this one with two in the sixth (off Ryoma Matsuda) and one in the eighth (Shinobu Fukuhara). Matt Murton brought the lead back up to 2 with an RBI double in the top of the last frame, and it’s a good thing he did, as Oh gave up a solo shot in the ninth (to the same guy who got him on Friday). Fortunately, the comeback ended there. The losing streak was over at last! Final Score: Tigers 7, Baystars 6.

With his bat, too! Shintaro has RBIs in two straight starts now. His double in the second inning opened the scoring in this one.

With his bat, too! Shintaro has RBIs in two straight starts now. His double in the second inning opened the scoring in this one.

Game 3: “Sunday Shin-chan” (Shintaro Fujinami) was looking for his sixth straight victory of the year and seventh overall, and he played like he wanted it. Not only did he strike out a dozen in eight innings of work, but he also got the team’s first RBI in the second inning. The whole team contributed in this one. Mauro Gomez hit a monster shot to left in the third (GIF here), Uemoto cleared the bases in the sixth, Murton brought Gomez home in the seventh and Toritani scored Murton as well, and then Fukudome brought another run home (though it was called an error, so no hit or RBI for him today) in the eighth. Kazuya Tsutsui made his season debut, striking out the side to cap the game off in style. Final Score: Tigers 8, Baystars 1.

History was made on Friday night, as every team in the Central League was below .500 for the first time ever. This was made possible by their annihilation at the hands of the Pacific League during interleague play. Any way you look at it, the Central will finish the year with a combined 17 game below .500 mark. On Friday, the top 5 teams combined for 8 of those, and the last-place Dragons had the other 9. The Tigers find themselves back in first at the end of the week, thanks to a Giants tie and the Carp taking care of the first-place Swallows (who are now in 4th). The Baystars are a season-worst 4 games below the surface. Here are the current CL standings. See how the PL looks here.

15-7-5 Standings

The Tigers open the upcoming week with a game in Okayama on Tuesday against the Dragons, then two at Koshien to finish the series. They travel back to Tokyo to end the week against their rivals, the Yomiuri Giants. GO TIGERS!

Monthly Tigers Magazine – July 2015

The July edition hit the stands today. My copy arrived in the mail last night. It came with five player cards: Randy Messenger, Akihito Fujii, Hiroki Uemoto, Yamatoand legendary pitcher Yutaka Enatsu. Each of the next 4 issues will come with 5 more cards.

2015julycoverHere is the table of contents for this issue:

  • Opening feature: Views/Fans from Interleague
  • Close-up Interview: Shintaro Fujinami
  • Another Side View: Fujinami
  • Pinstripe Report: Breaking out of the Win-Lose Cycle
  • A Special Message From: Masaaki Koyama
  • Tigers’ Diary: Masayuki Kakefu (Part 1 of 2?)
  • Players’ Note: Fumiya Araki
  • Tigers Farm Report
  • Take Care of my Son: Taiga Egoshi
  • Tigers Data Analysis
  • Short Q & A: Kai Ueda
  • Teammates Talk About: Shoya Yamamoto
  • 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 – June 20-21, 2015

TigersSwallowsJune2015“Forget interleague play. Move on and play better,” they said. Despite the harsh words spoken by coaches, players and fans alike, the Tigers finished the mini-season with a 10-8 record, good for best among Central League teams, and putting them close enough to the top of the CL standings despite being 2 games over par (under .500, that is). As league play resumed with a two-game set against the Yakult Swallows, and then two more on the road against the Hiroshima Carp, the Tigers shortened their rotation and hoped to take at least 3 of 4. At the halfway point, how have they fared?

Messenger lifts Uemoto (maybe half Randy's weight dripping wet) as they celebrate the team's win. The two were named co-heroes of the game.

Messenger lifts Uemoto (maybe half Randy’s weight dripping wet) as they celebrate the team’s win. The two were named co-heroes of the game.

Game 1: This was the day many have been waiting for. At long last, 254 at bats into his season, Matt Murton has finally hit his first home run. (Video of his bomb here.) It came in the bottom of the second, and he followed it up with another hit in the fourth, giving many hope that his extra practice sessions on days off has helped him find his groove. He was not the only foreigner to come up big on this day, as Mauro Gomez also hit a pair of RBI singles. Starter Randy Messenger fought off the Swallows despite not bringing his A+ game (it was, say, A- on this day), allowing just a run in seven innings pitched (six hits, five walks, seven strikeouts). Seung-hwan Oh shut the door and set the fat lady singing after his 10-pitch shutout ninth inning. Final Score: Tigers 4, Swallows 1.

Is it just me, or are most of Fukudome's home runs solo shots? Still, happy to see him hit his 9th of the year in Sunday's game.

Is it just me, or are most of Fukudome’s home runs solo shots? Still, happy to see him hit his 9th of the year in Sunday’s game.

Game 2: If Saturday was a party for the foreigners, Sunday was one for the natives. Ryota Imanari opened the scoring with a seeing-eye single to right. After a couple of runs against starter Shintaro Fujinami in the fourth, the Tigers roared back in the sixth, with a Kosuke Fukudome solo shot (his 9th on the year) and then a bases-loaded 2-RBI double by pinch hitter Keisuke Kanoh. The Tigers never looked back, and their Korean closer once again sent the visitors packing on just 12 pitches. Lotsa game highlights here. Final Score: Tigers 4, Swallows 2.

Series Notes: Murton’s home run came on a 3-1 count and landed somewhat deep in the left field stands. Said the man, “At last I got it. I’m glad I was able to put us on the board so early in the first game back after interleague play.” Indeed, fans welcomed the long ball… Hiroki Uemoto had a great series, driving in one, stealing a base and plating twice in the opener, and getting three hits in the second game… “Sixth foreigner” Nelson Perez made his farm debut on Saturday, committing an error in the first inning before going 0-for-4 (2 strikeouts) in a less-than-stellar debut. “I’m still not in 100% game shape,” the Dominican explained, “I didn’t get any rest all week”… Messenger’s shutout streak ended at 27 in the 4th inning of Saturday’s game. It is the second longest of the year by a Tigers pitcher (Fujinami went 32) and left him just short of the club record by a foreign pitcher. That mark still belongs to legend Gene Bacque at 34. Still, Messenger has lowered his ERA from 5.88 when he got shipped down to the farm, to 3.71 now… The Tigers now find themselves in second place, just a half game out of first, thanks to a prolonged slump by the Giants and Baystars. However, just 3.5 games separate the top from the bottom in the Central, leaving everyone in contention. Here are the standings as of the end of play on June 21:

15-6-21 Standings

By the Numbers: Interleague & Beyond

Let’s look back on the past 3 weeks, in which we played against the six Pacific League teams. We’ll go through the numbers, starting with…

0 – The number of runs allowed in 24 innings pitched by Randy Messenger. He shut out the Saitama Seibu Lions for 7 innings, then the Nippon Ham Fighters for 8, and finally the Orix Buffaloes for 9. He came out with just a 2-0 record, getting a no-decision last Friday as the cross-town rival Buffaloes managed to push…

1 run across the plate against reliever Shinobu Fukuhara in the 10th inning of that game. He allowed three straight singles and looked to still be in a position to get out of the jam until Kohei Shibata bobbled the ball in center field. Still, instead of lamenting the Tigers’ loss here, we should be glad that they also won…

2 games by that same 1-0 score. Both of these were with Messenger on the mound, including the second one which came against NPB poster boy Shohei Ohtani. Look for him to eventually find his way to the major leagues. Another player who just acquired international free agency rights is Nobuhiro Matsuda, who hit…

3 home runs in the series against the Tigers, including a walkoff against reliever Yuya Andoh in extras in the rubber match. Fukuoka’s converted bandbox, Yafuoku Dome, had its outfield walls brought in after averaging just 1.03 home runs per game last season. This year, heading into interleague play, the average was up to over 2.5 per game! Anyways, the Hawks absolutely dominated the Tigers and won the interleague title with a 12-6 record. They hit a whopping 23 home runs (1st) and stole 13 bases (T-3rd), while the Tigers managed to swipe just…

4 bases in 18 games. So much for Wada’s goal of stealing 100 on the season. In order to do that, they would need to steal 7 every 10 games. At this stage of the season (64 games in) they have just 22, which puts them on pace for just 49 all year. Just half of Wada’s goal! Brutal, wouldn’t you say? Speaking of brutal, the Tigers’ batting average in interleague (.235) was the lowest among the 12 teams, and the team had…

5 of their 6 qualified hitters (who got enough at bats) in the bottom third of league standings. Only Takashi Toritani (.296) was able to finish in the top half (31st out of 68 hitters), and while everyone has been so worried about Matt Murton (.230), our slugger Mauro Gomez hit a skinny .209 and “healthy” Ryota Imanari singled his way to a .204 average. He did not have a single extra-base hit in 49 at bats. The Tigers bats really only showed life in two games: their 9-8 nail-biter against Lotte and the final game, an 11-4 blowout. In fact, the Tigers played in…

6 blowouts, winning just that one. They lost 2-9 and 4-9 to the Lions, 0-5 to the Hawks, and 1-15 and 1-10 to the Buffaloes. In the 6 blowout games, the team’s run differential was -33. They went 1-5 in those ones. In the other 12 games, the team went 9-3, but the run differential was just +10. Interestingly, all of their blowout losses came on the road, where they lost…

7 of their 9 games. Was it the DH-rule that threw them off? Possibly. Well, it at least accounts for their meagre 17 runs (1.89 per game) versus 42 at Koshien (4.67 per). It could also account for the ridiculous amount of runs they gave up. The starters were worse on the road, without a doubt. The lone road wins came in Messenger’s shutdown of the Lions and Shintaro Fujinami‘s relative containing of the Hawks. Awful starts by the youngens (Yuya Yokoyama and Yuta Iwasada) aside, Atsushi Nohmi was a mess on the road, and Minoru Iwata was much less effective away from Koshien, where the team recorded…

8 home wins in 9 games. The lone loss was a blip on closer Seung-hwan Oh‘s record, and despite what his critics say, he is an elite closer. He allowed 4 runs in one inning to blow the opener against the Lotte Marines on June 2nd, but after that he threw six innings of shutout ball, striking out 9 and allowing just 2 baserunners. Before the meltdown, he also had 4 shutout innings (5 baserunners) and 6 strikeouts. That makes 10 innings, 7 baserunners (0.70 WHIP), no runs allowed, 15 strikeouts in 8 appearances. I’ll take one bad outing to go along with those incredible numbers any day. His home run to Kakunaka was one of 18 the team gave up in 18 games, as opposed to just…

9 hit by their own players. Of those, Gomez hit 3, Kosuke Fukudome hit 3, and one each was hit by Hiroki Uemoto, Toritani and Keisuke Kanoh. That’s it. Nothing for Murton, Imanari, the center field platoon, or the catchers. Cause for alarm? I would say so, especially in light of the 5 straight games in which the hitters got…

10 or more strikeouts (June 10-14). Last season one of the Tigers’ strengths was its walks-to-strikeouts ratio. This year it seems like everyone is swinging and missing (or just looking at strike 3) a lot more than in years past. Gomez is second in the league in K’s, Murton has more than usual, keen-eyed Fukudome has been seen frowning at umps more than ever as well. This does not take into account Imanari’s strikeout spree, either!


The team now has 79 games left to figure out how to start winning consistently, or at least how to get on a roll. They have signed Nelson Perez in hopes of either waking Murton up or getting more power and production out of left field. They have also announced that “Sunday Shin-chan” Fujinami will pitch Sundays from now on, as his 2013 Sunday record (9-3) could help improve the 2015 Tigers’ Sunday blues (4-8). The overall record has hovered near the .500 mark for over 2 weeks and has not been 2 games over water since April 4, when they were 5-3. Fans can talk all they want about how they are “just 2 games out of first” but we all know the Giants will pick themselves up by their bootstraps, and even if DeNA continues its plummet (3-14-1 in interleague, worst since the mini-series started in 2005) , you know the Hiroshima Carp are primed to make a charge. Starters Kenta Maeda, Kris Johnson and Hiroki Kuroda give them a chance on most nights, and their bats are starting to show signs of life, too. The Swallows have also had spells of great pitching and great hitting, just not at the same time. If they do, they will also contend for the playoffs.

There are only three teams allowed to the dance, and the Tigers have paid enough lip service to fans about winning the pennant in the team’s 80th anniversary season. It’s time to start winning and make a move, men!

Can the team live up to the slogan at last?

Can the team live up to the slogan at last?

Series Recap – June 9-11, 2015

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!

Iwata's pitch count rose and rose until he ran out of gas midway through the fifth.

Iwata’s pitch count rose and rose until he ran out of gas midway through the fifth.

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.

Fujinami roars as he pitches his way out of a jam in the seventh.

Fujinami roars as he pitches his way out of a jam in the seventh.

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.

Keisuke Kanoh started as DH and proved to be a worthy starter, hitting his first home run of the season in the second inning of Thursday's game.

Keisuke Kanoh started as DH and proved to be a worthy starter, hitting his first home run of the season in the second inning of Thursday’s game.

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.

15-6-11 Standings