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

Mini-Series Recap – July 28-29, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Series Recap – July 24-26, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15-7-26 Standings

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!

Series Recap – July 20-22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15-7-22 Standings

ASB – Report Card Time!

Yes, I’m a teacher, and while I don’t necessarily agree with the grading system, I do believe in evaluation. As we have a few days off here, I figure it’s time to look at how the team has performed up to this point. I’ll start with the position players today, then look at the starters and relievers tomorrow. Also, I’ll give the team a final grade and a few recommendations on how they can make that final push to the top. And away we go!

Fujii has had more playing time than the other C's. Does he deserve it?

Fujii has had more playing time than the other C’s. Does he deserve it?

Catchers: Sophomore Ryutaro Umeno (.232, 3 HR, .277 OBP) started most of the games at the start of the year, and while his bat improved from last season, his game-calling showed no improvement. He fell out of the circle of trust of some of the pitchers as well as coaches, and has found himself on the bench (or on the farm) the last two months. In his stead, Kazunari Tsuruoka (.197, 1 HR, .276 OBP) has come in and called games alright, and even had a couple of good games at the plate, but is still a liability with the stick. Akihito Fujii is the clear favorite for a few of the pitchers, but he is not as strong defensively as Tsuruoka, and his bat also leaves much to be desired (.192, 0 HR, .315 OBP). None of the three men are good enough to be the clear-cut head catcher, and there is no one on the farm ready to take the reins, either. We can only hope Umeno learns to call a game and can lead the team through the last two months of the year. Overall Grade: C-

Mauro has been adequate but not great so far...

Mauro has been adequate but not great so far…

Mauro Gomez: He has been quite inconsistent this year, having prolonged slumps but also lengthy streaks of great hitting. On the whole, his numbers are slightly below last year’s (26 HR, 109 RBI) pace: if he keeps up this season’s 12-45 pace, he’ll end up with around 20 home runs and 77 RBIs. His average (.282) is roughly the same as it was last year (.283), and his strikeout rate has remained the same (that is, awful – he’s got the second most in the CL). His play on defense has been unspectacular, though not worse than expected, and not overly detrimental to game outcomes. Let’s hope he can heat up a little more and at least match last year’s home run numbers, while knocking in roughly 90 runs. Overall Grade: B-

"Lethal Uepon" needs consistency and a bigger glove.

“Lethal Uepon” needs consistency and a bigger glove.

Hiroki Uemoto: Last season he started the year batting well over .300 and finished  .276 on the year. This year he has not gotten over .250 and has really looked lost at the plate on many occasions. However, he has stolen 14 bases (second in CL) and is facing a high number of pitches (sixteen pitches in one at bat – it ended in a walk). Also, he is leading the team by hitting .302 with runners in scoring position – earning himself the nickname “Lethal Uepon“. Another downside for Uemoto – his 10 errors are worst on the team. He has made some great plays in the field but also some blunders on harmless-looking plays. Overall Grade: C

Takashi Toritani: The captain returned to the team with one goal – to win the Central League pennant. His numbers do not reflect the hunger that burns in him, as he is hitting just .267 (4 HR, 24 RBI, 5 SB), which is considerably lower than last season’s numbers (.313, 8 HR, 73 RBI, 10 SB). He has been playing hurt and that has affected him at the dish and on the field, but he has his consecutive games streak at stake and refuses to rest. He already has six errors this year after having only 5 all of last season. I’ll be the first to admit I’m extra hard on the captain for putting individual accolades over what’s best for the team, so I’ll give him a little break here. He’s 34 and his range at SS will only get narrower, so perhaps a move to 3B in the offseason is in order. Overall Grade: B-

Third basemen: We’ve had two main guys at second – Tsuyoshi Nishioka had the job before going down with strained elbow ligaments. He started the year red hot but was cooling off in the weeks before his injury. Despite mediocre (I’m being nice again) play in the field, his dugout presence and aggressiveness at the plate are needed on this team, and we welcome him back when he’s ready! Ryota Imanari has taken the bulk of the playing time since returning from oblique injuries. He also started really strongly, then slumped for 10 days or so, hit well for another week and has since disappeared. Though his bat has not provided much help, his rock-solid play in the field is appreciated. He is also a good mood-maker, so he has replaced Nishioka in more ways than one. Overall Grade: C+

Murton's heating up! The team needs him more than ever...

Murton’s heating up! The team needs him more than ever…

Matt Murton: Where to begin? Ah, yes. The start. He got the game-winning RBI in the first game of the year, despite hitting 1-for-4, and he kept that .250 average through the first month of the year. His May was slightly worse (.242) and the media was having field days. The front office looked into better hired help, choosing a left fielder from the Baseball Challenge League, but right around the end of Interleague play, the “human hitting machine” heated up. He ended June with a .328 average on the month, and is hitting .320 so far in July. Not quite the .338 bar he set for himself last year, but coming along nicely. He is currently 12th in the league in batting average, and has started to hit the long ball as well (4 HR in the past 20 games), and his play in the field has also picked up some, although he has never really been considered an asset with his glove or arm. Overall Grade: C+

Now that his bunting has "gone foul" Yamato's lone sales point is his glove.

Now that his bunting has “gone foul” Yamato’s lone sales point is his glove.

Center Field: At first glance, this group is a disaster. Yamato plays incredible defense but has been awful at the dish (.195). Shunsuke is slightly worse in the field but slightly better with a bat in his hands (.217). Neither has a home run to his name yet, and only 2 SBs between the two of them. Hayata Itoh (.270, 2 HR) was doing alright until he went down with a thumb injury in early June. Taiga Egoshi (.095, 1 HR) has not shown consistency at the plate or in the field, despite the promise he showed in spring training. Kohei Shibata and Masahiro Nakatani have not gotten much playing time either, but there is probably a reason for it. (Wait… with our manager, “reason” takes on a whole new meaning.) Because of our manager’s strategy attempts, the center field of the day has often batted second and been expected to bunt. They have done this well at times, but several failed attempts have also resulted in free outs (sometimes two). I’m not sure what the answer is here, but I can’t imagine things getting worse if we let Egoshi or Nakatani learn the job on the fly. If not for this year’s sake, it will certainly make 2016 a better year. Overall Grade: D-

Only Dome-san has played better this season than last.

Only Dome-san has played better this season than last.

Kosuke Fukudome: At last, we get a high grade! Since returning from the majors in 2013, he has shown flashes of his old (that is, young) self, but never really putting together a full season. This year, his .275 average is 3rd on the team (and 14th in the league), his 15 HRs is his best since coming back, and is tied for 3rd in the league, and his 45 RBIs is tied for 4th in the CL. His defensive play has been exceptional for a man of his age, and his clutch play has saved the team from last place, literally. Overall Grade: A

Team Bats: The Tigers rank 11th of 12 teams in batting average (.240), 10th in home runs (50), last in stolen bases (30), last in average with runners in scoring position (.230) and 11th in runs scored (269 – the Eagles have 3 fewer runs in 2 fewer games). Hard to give this team a passing grade, and in fact, I have to lay it down right at the end. We’re awful. Forget park factors – the team has a great record at home, and is even hitting better at home (.242) than on the road (.238). Something’s got to give. There may be just half a game between them and the league leaders, but the numbers indicate that this team does not deserve to be in contention right now. Hopefully a strong end to July will give them the confidence they need to endure the “Road of Death” in August and then they can avoid their typical “September Slide”. Overall Grade: F

Mini-Series Recap – July 14 & 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Series Recap – 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

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