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

Season Turned Around?

15-5-24 Standings

Central League Standings 5/24

The Hanshin Tigers were seven games out of first place on May 24. Their record was a dismal 21-25, and they were heading into the interleague mini-season, one which has never been kind to them. With the first-place Yomiuri Giants as defending interleague champs, their lead over the Tigers could have easily reached double digits in three weeks (18 games). Instead, the unthinkable happened.

The Tigers went 10-8, which was the best record by a CL team, as the rest of the league got humiliated by the PL to the tune of a 34-53-3 record. The Giants won only 7, and the second place Baystars managed just 3 wins and a tie. Just one game after league play resumed, no CL team had a record above .500, and the Tigers were tied for first. They are still undefeated (5-0-1) since the break, and hold a 2-game lead atop the standings.

15-6-28 Standings

CL Standings 6/28

The greatest factor in the team’s turnaround has been its bats. While still in the cellar for team BA (.236) they are closer to the pack than they were a few weeks ago (.225). They are also finally not the weakest team in the CL, as their 39 team HRs are two ahead of Chunichi and just two fewer than the Giants. We already paid tribute to Kosuke Fukudome a few days ago, and he proceeded to hit his 12th jack the next day. Mauro Gomez followed that up with his 9th, making the pair the first in 28 years of Tigers ball to hit back-to-back bombs in back-to-back games. (Mayumi and Bass did it in 1987.)

Murton's first HR of the year came on Saturday, June 20 in the bottom of the 2nd inning.

Murton’s first HR of the year came on Saturday, June 20 in the bottom of the 2nd inning.

Today we want to focus on the turnaround of another key player: Matt Murton. We have followed his story closely here as well (see here and here). He got benched at the end of interleague play and received plenty of bad press as he was batting .243 with no home runs through 55 games. Since league play resumed on June 20, he has gone 11-for-23 (.478) with two home runs in six games. His average now (.264) is still well below his career average in Japan (.317 heading into this season) but is steadily climbing up, thanks to 3 straight multi-hit games. This six-game stretch is the best we have seen out of Murton all year and shows promise of the return of the redheaded hitting machine we all know and love.

Just a few days later, on Thursday, June 24, he hit his second bomb. The man is on a roll!

Just a few days later, on Wednesday, June 24, he hit his second bomb. The man is on a roll!

What has helped him turn his season around? Here are some of the possible explanations:

perezmug1) His benching and the team’s acquisition of Nelson Perez. It may or may not be coincidence that Murton’s turn around started right around when the team finally found another foreign left fielder. Incidentally, Perez made an error in his first game, going hitless in four at bats. Since then he has settled in a little better, going 8-for-20 in five games. (No home runs yet, but 3 doubles despite a boatload of strikeouts.) Could Matt have felt some pressure that his job was at stake? Did that light a fire under him? Doubtful. He is a professional, and has always been known as one who strives for excellence at all times. It seems unlikely that a guy from independent ball would scare a seasoned veteran into hitting the ball more.

2) His 100-minute talk with Wada and the coaches on a rainy day before league play resumed. It sounds like he was really passionate while talking to them, reminding the staff that he just loves baseball so much. He did most of the talking while the coaches mostly listened, reports say. The rest of the team had long since left the facilities but he kept on going, perhaps releasing some much built up steam. This is definitely a factor worth considering. Coaches and management agreed that he was overthinking things. This could be true, as analysts compiled data showing that he was swinging at just 60% of the strikes he was seeing, as compared with a 69% mark last season. Maybe now he’s getting a better look at the ball and swinging more aggressively at the right pitches.

murtonhotzone2014

How he did in 2014

3) More aggressive hitting. Last season, he batted .394 (54-137) when putting the first pitch of the at-bat in play. He has done so much less this year (.154), and has gone 1 for 4 (.250) on first-pitch-in-play situations during his 6-game hitting streak. His homers this year have come in hitters’ counts (3 balls, 1 strike vs. Swallows, 1 ball, no strikes vs. Carp), which indicates to me that he is zoned in a lot more during those situations. (On the season, he is 5 for 8 when the count is 3-1 and 8 for 20 when the count is 1-0). Let’s hope he can bring back the aggressiveness that led to his league-best .338 average from a year ago!

4) He met an English Tigers blogger in the days leading up to his hitting streak. Yes, that must be it. Couldn’t be coincidence, could it. By the way, the team is 6-0-1 since that day.

Here’s a GIF of Matt making an excellent play in left. Move over, Yamato!

The Tigers go on the road to face the Swallows for three, then head to Yokohama for three more before playing a “home” game (in Okayama) next Tuesday and finally return to Koshien on July 8th to finish that series against the Dragons. It will be interesting to see what the standings look like at that point, as the next series on their plates after that is a road set against their eternal rivals, the Giants. Let’s keep things going, Tigers! We always believed in you, Matt! See you at the ‘Bucks again sometime!

By the way, I don’t want to jinx anyone but so far Murton is 13-for-19 (.684) against tonight’s Swallows starter in his career! Hope to see more fireworks!

Here’s to you, #8!

fukudomecard

It is fitting that the star of the Tigers’ eighth straight home win is number eight, Kosuke Fukudome. The 38-year old had a game for the ages on Saturday, not only reaching base every time up, but scoring on every occasion as well. The Tigers won 5-3, and we could spend some time looking at the other guys who contributed to the win (Randy Messenger‘s gutsy performance despite a costly error, questionable calls and weak hits that somehow turned into runs; Mauro Gomez‘s 2 RBIs including a late home run that piggybacked on Fukudome’s; Yamato‘s amazing catch in center that was reminiscent of his Nippon Series work last season). You can see GIFs of much of the action here. But let’s focus on what the veteran ex-Dragon, ex-Cub, ex-Indian did to essentially win the game on his own.

After two quick and easy outs to start the first, Fukudome battled his way on base, earning a walk. This gave resurgent cleanup hitter Gomez a chance to bring him home on a deep ball to right-center (video here). The crucial first run of the game went to the Tigers thanks to #8’s keen eye and strong base running.

In the fourth, Baystars pitcher blooped a ball to right, which “the Dome” charged, threw hard to second and induced the ever-so-rare “fielder’s choice to right.” It didn’t prevent a run from scoring on the play, but it helped Messenger get out of a tough inning.

He then led off the bottom of the inning with a stand-up triple (his third of the year after recording none in his first two years with the club). The two imports both grounded out to pitcher, and fans feared another leadoff triple by the PL-graduate would be wasted, until Hiroki Uemoto (a.k.a. Lethal Uepon) punched a ball through the infield (video here). The deficit was cut in half, and the Tigers needed just one more run to even things up.

fukudomehomerun

Who else should be the one to provide the bat but Dome-san? His 10th home run of the year in the sixth was a solo shot, and sent the crowd into a frenzy. (GIF here)

But not as much as his next one, which went to an even deeper part of the stadium, and put the team up a run. (GIF here) It was his first multi-home run game in 8 years, and gave him a final line of: 3 AB, 3 H, 2 HR, 2 RBI, 4 R. Plus one outfield assist. You want clutch? Listen to this: of his 11 bombs on the year, 2 have been the first run scored in the game, 3 have tied the game, 1 broke a tie, 1 reversed the lead, and 1 was a walkoff. Since moving into third in the hitting order, he is 13-for-27 (.481) with 3 HR and 6 RBI.

fukudomehero150627

Here is a translation of the hero interview. Did I mention that I love his curtness and frankness? Curt and Frank would be proud. (video here)

ーTell us how you’re feeling right now.
“Quite frankly I’m happy. Yeah.”

ーFirst, your game-tying home run. You were the leadoff hitter that inning. Can you take us back to what you were thinking at the time?
“What was happening then? I dunno, I think I just went in hoping to get on base.”

ーAnd how did the connection feel?
“It felt great, but the ball in my previous at bat was held in the park by the head winds, so I didn’t think this one had a chance, either.”

ーHow would you rate your condition these days?
“Well, better than usual, I reckon.”

ーHow did you prepare for your at-bat when you hit the go-ahead home run?
“We already had two outs on us that inning, and I might be overstating things but I went in thinking home run.”

ーHow did that one feel?
“Better than the first one.”

ーIt’s your first double-digit home run season since joining the Tigers, and your first in a long time. How does that sound to you?
“Yeah, it took me awhile to get back there.”

ーYou’ve been on a real roll since batting third in the order. How do you like that slot?
“It’s good.”

ーYou scored four runs today, meaning you ran a lot as well.
“I’m ready for a good leg massage tonight.”

ーOn defense you made a great play on (DeNA pitcher) Inoh’s hit, showing great focus in right as well.
“One of the team’s defining characteristics is creating momentum with sound fielding. It all starts there.”

ーThe team is now undefeated in six. How do you feel about the momentum the team has built?
“I think we’ve got some good flow going.”

ーThe team sits atop the standings. How does it feel to play good ball while on top?
“It’s fun!”

ーAbout tomorrow’s game…
“We had some great support from all you fans today, and we’ll do our best to keep things going in tomorrow’s game.”

Mini-Series Recap – June 23-24, 2015

The Tigers played their second of two 2-game sets to open up the post-interleague schedule. This time, they traveled to the “Hokuriku” region to play a couple of true road games: the first in Nagano, the second in Toyama. With just 0.5 games separating them from the Giants for the league lead, but also with a mere 3 game lead on the last place team, they needed to continue their strong play before coming home for a three-game series on the weekend. It was a wild mini-series, so fasten your seatbelt and join me as we go over the action.

Gomez got all of this pitch, and everyone knew the instant it left his bat that we were 20 seconds from celebrating with Imanari. Komanechi!

Gomez got all of this pitch, and everyone knew the instant it left his bat that we were 20 seconds from celebrating with Imanari. Komanechi!

Game 1: Though rain threatened to drown this one out, this one was played in full. Including a 33-minute rain delay, the game went all the way into the dark hours of the night, as each team took leads, lost leads, tied the game, and repeated the process all over again. The Tigers drew first blood on a Ryota Imanari solo shot (his first of the year) in the second. The rains chased players from the field and when the game resumed, it was the Carp who responded to the soggy conditions much better than the Tigers. In fact, they chased starter Minoru Iwata after just four innings of work, taking a 3-1 lead into the fifth. That was when the Tigers roared back against ex-MLB pitcher Hiroki Kuroda. Kohei Shibata took a two-out pitch to right-center, cashing in Imanari and Takashi Toritani, tying the game at 3. The score remained knotted through Ryoma Matsuda‘s two innings of relief, but then took a turn for the worst when Yuya Andoh came in and fell apart in the seventh. Two hits were followed by a wild pitch, and the winning run crossed the plate for the fish. However, the game was not over yet. With runners on first and third, Mauro Gomez took the first pitch he saw to deeeeeep left, reversing the teams’ fortunes and putting the Tigers up 2 with just six outs to go. With Shinobu Fukuhara and Seung-hwan Oh due up to pitch those innings, this one was over, right? Think again. Once again, the ex-Arai came back to bite the Tigers, hitting a solo shot to left and narrowing the lead to one. Still, our closer only had to shut down their 8th, 9th and 1st hitters to end the game. No problem, right? Think again, again! A walk, a hit batsman, and a hit later, the game was tied. Runners were on second and third with no outs. All the Carp needed was a hit, a deep fly or a squeeze play, and they had three chances to do it. But a sharp grounder, a shallow fly and a strikeout later, this one was headed to extras. Nothing was decided in three frames, despite chances on both sides, and youngster Hiroaki Saiuchi pitched 2 2/3 innings of shutout ball to help the Tigers preserve the tie. With the Giants’ loss, this put them in a tie for first, but it also meant that for the first time in Central League history, no team had a winning record after sixty-plus games. Final Score: Tigers 6, Carp 6.

Nohmi

Nohmi “helped his own cause” by driving in two runs in the fourth, giving his team a huge lead.

Game 2: If both the Tigers and Giants lost here, every CL team would be UNDER .500 for the first time in history. But this one was never in question. Kosuke Fukudome knocked in Toritani in the first, and then the offense padded their lead nicely in the 4th with an Imanari double (2 RBI) followed by an Atsushi Nohmi single (2 more), making the score 5-0. Matt Murton also smashed one to left in the fifth (see it here), his second home run in 4 games, and despite a couple runs along the way by the Carp, the Tigers cruised to victory in fashion. Gomez added an insurance run late, and yesterday’s goats (Fukuhara and Oh) pitched strongly in the last two frames. The Tigers were once again over .500, and awaited the Giants result to see where they would sit in the standings. Final Score: Tigers 7, Carp 2.

The team finds itself in sole possession of first (by a game) after the Giants were toppled for the second straight night. The Baystars have won 2 straight after dropping 12 in a row. These are the most recent standings in the Central:

15-6-24 Standings

The Tigers host the DeNA Baystars for three at Koshien this weekend and will finish the month of June with their first of three straight at Jingu Stadium to face the Swallows. Let’s hope they can keep this little hot streak going to end the month strong. Go TIGERS!

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?

News, Rumors and More…

sanspo

I honestly wish I could do more than just read articles and translate / summarize them. I wish I could witness events firsthand, interview people myself, and dig for stories that people would want to read. Instead, I scour the headlines for interesting stuff and translate the ones I really think people will want to read, and the ones that sound legitimate. But today there were a few that I think will rock the boat a little, no matter their validity. The following stories were taken from Sanspo.com and paraphrased or translated by me. Nothing of my own added in, no check into their truthfulness or accuracy. Take them for what they’re worth, folks.


1) Hankyu-Hanshin Electric General Shareholders’ Meeting

At the shareholders’ meeting on the 16th in Umeda, amidst general questions about railroad companies, a few questions were asked about the baseball club as well. One older man said, “It’s the team’s 80th anniversary and they are awful. I don’t think fans will keep coming to games. I think you should hire Okada as manager next year, what do you think?” referring, of course, to former manager Akinobu Okada.

The reply was: “There have been a lot of painful games up to this point, and we have caused concern to many people. But Wada brought the team through the Climax Series last season and has a track record. The team is 30-33 and just 2.5 games out of first with a full 80 games to go, so we are not even thinking of replacing the manager at this point.”

Another guy wearing a Tigers jersey said, “I wish they would do better. The worst part about the team is that we keep bringing in players from the outside. Why not raise up better players from within the organization? I want to see them win by drafting and training players well, not by purchasing good free agents.”

Yet another talked about the draft as well, specifically saying he wanted the team to draft Tomoya Mori (now with the Saitama Seibu Lions) two years ago, and what the GM was thinking. No answer was printed in the press.


2) The Post-Murton Years Will Start in 2016

The club revealed on June 15 that it will not plan to re-sign Matt Murton next season. GM Nakamura will make a trip to the US in July in search of a new foreigner who could replace him for next year. The current slump combined with his $3.9 US salary are the breaking points. Should the manager find an outfielder that he likes on this trip, it would mean the team is cutting its ties with Murton.

As he continues to struggle through this slump (batting .248 and 0 HRs through 63 games), the team is exploring other options but trying to care for Murton at the same time. It seems they are looking beyond this season and ahead to 2016.

A team executive commented, “Obviously his numbers at this point do not live up to the salary he is being paid.”

The plan is for GM Nakamura and Manager Wada to meet after Interleague play ends and discuss the team’s current state of affairs. The GM was planning to leave for the US at the end of July, but now chances are it will come a little earlier in the month, a team representative said. Whether or not Nakamura will be able to find someone better than Murton, who has a strong track record already, will be a true test of his scouting eye.

Murton returned to the starting lineup in Game 3 of the Orix series, getting two hits, but that did not put anyone at ease. Obviously with 80 games to go this year, his fate is not yet sealed, but he will have to go on an impressive hitting spree in order to convince the team to keep him on beyond this season.


3) Team Will Try to Keep Messenger, Oh

While the team made its intentions clear about Murton, the contracts of Randy Messenger and Seung-hwan Oh also run out at the end of this year.

Messenger is in the second year of his 2 year 500-million yen contract, which is significantly lower than Murton’s. He struggled earlier this year and was dispatched to the farm team, but has since thrown 24 consecutive scoreless innings, and it appears the team is looking to sign him on for next season.

Meanwhile, the team seems interested in bringing back second-year closer Oh, but if he demands a huge raise on his two year 600-million yen deal, it will leave the team with a difficult decision to make.

First baseman Mauro Gomez signed a two year 200-million yen contract last offseason with 2016 being the club’s option.

Tigers 1, Buffaloes 15 – The Rant

buffaloes15tigers1

Keep in mind, reader, that I love the Tigers, despite my harsh words. I want them to succeed, reach their potential, win games, even championships.

This is not a series recap, and there will be no series recap this time around. The Tigers’ play is not worthy of being retold. In fact, I question whether or not I should even be writing this at all. I simply want to voice a few things about the last two games in particular and the Tigers’ overall performance in general.

The biggest problem with the team, in spite of the ludicrous amount of runs allowed today, is not its pitching. The hitting is absolutely atrocious, and the past week has made that clearer than ever. Let’s look at our regular player’s lines over the interleague season, with the averages over the last 5 games in brackets. The number before the name is their NPB rank for average in interleague play.

28. Takashi Toritani: .302 (.200)

49. Kosuke Fukudome: .242 (.222)

53. Matt Murton: .231 (.000)

57. Hiroki Uemoto: .222 (.118)

60. Mauro Gomez: .207 (.125)

That’s right, these are their rankings out of 67 NPB batters who have had over 44 at bats during interleague play. We have ONE guy in the top 48, and FOUR in the bottom 19! And our THIRD BEST guy has been benched for the last two games! That brings me to the next problem…

Awww what's the matter, Wada? Someone mad that Uemoto copied your glasses choice? Or the losing?

Awww what’s the matter, Wada? Someone mad that Uemoto copied your glasses choice? Or the losing?

Management, coaching, strategy, etc. It’s been absolutely awful. I’m not a professional and honestly, I would be an awful manager from the dugout. But from my couch, I’m pretty good at this. The team has managed a mere 9 hits in the last two games, 4 of which came in garbage time in today’s blowout. In the first game of the series, starter Randy Messenger threw 9 brilliant innings of shutout ball, and was supported by 3 measly singles. In my opinion, there were several chances to bring in a pinch hitter to try to generate a hit, a run, which is all they needed to win this one. In the top of the 7th, with 2 outs, catcher Akihito Fujii (.192 on the season) stepped up to the plate. We could have used Keisuke Kanoh (who had hit a home run the day before) or even Murton, who is obviously a more capable bat than our old catcher. With Kazunari Tsuruoka on the bench, we still had a more-than-capable catcher to crouch behind the plate for the balance of the game. But Fujii struck out, ending the inning. Shunsuke opened the eighth with a hit, which, had he instead been able to do in the seventh, would have put the winning run in scoring position. Anyhow, in the eighth, after another delightful bunt to push Shunsuke into scoring position, we subbed in the “god of pinch hitters” Kohei Shibata (/end sarcasm). Again, why not Kanoh or Murton? Shibata proceeded to strike out (and it was his error that allowed the winning run to score in the 10th. Not that I’m throwing him under the bus.), and so did captain Tori, ending the threat. Both times I was yelling at the TV (and posting on Facebook) about why this was a bad move. I was right, but being right never felt so wrong. Again in the top of the 10th, Wada went with Fujii at the plate when he could have easily brought in a pinch hitter. Another strikeout, another wasted opportunity.

Yokoyama didn't have it today, but he was left in too long in the 4th.

Yokoyama didn’t have it today, but he was left in too long in the 4th.

Then there was today’s game. Starter Yuya Yokoyama began the 4th (in which he had just received a 1-0 lead courtesy of a Fukudome upper-deck blast) by plunking their leadoff batter. Then a hit, then a walk. It was clear he was gassed. (He threw in relief on Tuesday.) But still, the score was 1-0 and the bases were loaded. His pitches were all up in the zone, and he walked the next guy on 4 high pitches. Tie game. Another hitter, another walk, still his pitches were high and errant. I’ve been reading a book by former MLB catcher Jason Kendall lately, in which he says if a pitcher’s balls are all high, it’s a clear sign he is tired and needs to be pulled. Wada waited too long to pull the trigger. With a 2-1 deficit and bases juiced and still no one out, he brought in… Naoto Tsuru. Yes, the man who is better known for his Facebook page than his pitching. The game is still within reach, why not bring in a more experienced pitcher, like, say, Kazuya Takamiya or Yuya Andoh? At least they have put out fires earlier in the year. (And sometimes failed as well, mind you. But still, they had experience… that’s the key!) Tsuru allowed two more hits, which was enough for the Buffaloes to add 4 to their score, and the game was now officially a joke. After that, you can throw any reliever in you want, it doesn’t make a difference. Look at our bats – not like they’re gonna stage a comeback! (See hitting averages above.) So it matters little that Tatsuya Kojima and Takamiya let in another 9 runs. When the game is on the line, you gotta go with your experienced pitchers. Bad, BAD decision making by Yutaka Wada were rewarded with poor performances on all fronts, and an embarrassing loss was the result.

I’m running out of time, space and patience, so I will not continue my list of things that went wrong. I will just say one thing about each player, and call it a night.

Toritani: LEAD the team. Not in stats, not in games played, but with your voice. Create an atmosphere. Expect more from your mates.

Uemoto: Nice defense at least. Your bat has been pretty quiet since the beaning in Yokohama.

Murton: You gotta stop being so mad, especially in front of the camera. You’re not endearing yourself to teammates or fans. And your “There’s peace in Jesus” comments in hero interviews of the past look pretty hypocritical these days. Oh, and swing for the fences once or twice, please.

Gomez: Don’t swing at low pitches. Just don’t.

Fukudome: No beefs. You’re the team’s only slugger these days.

Imanari: Practice batting more. Your slump is turning you into the left-handed Murton. (OUCH. Sorry Matt.)

Center fielders: One of you, step up, please. Just one. The platoon is awful.

Tsuruoka & Fujii: When interleague ends, we need you to hit, too… because two automatic outs at the bottom of the order are not acceptable.

The End. Tomorrow’s my birthday and I expect a win from you. But I won’t be watching it so someone out there will need to report it to me. Thanks.

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

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