Where’s the relief? Tigers relievers (including Kuwahara, pictured above) have struggled early and often in 2015.
After a promising opening series at Kyocera Dome, the Tigers looked to jump out to a perfect 6-0 start as they faced the Tokyo Yakult Swallows at Jingu Stadium. Unfortunately, the cooler weather brought about a cold spell at the plate as well. In three games, the pinstripes managed just seven runs, losing two of three to last year’s basement-dwelling birds.
The first game started out about as well as any team could hope: Tsuyoshi Nishioka hit a home run, knocking in Takashi Toritani and Hiroki Uemoto in the process and giving the team a quick 3-0 lead. Unfortunately, that was all the fireworks the Tigers bats would provide on the night, and starter Atsushi Nohmi surrendered 4 runs in 6 innings as the team lost a close one. Final Score: Swallows 4, Tigers 3.
Wednesday night marked the long-awaited return of Akira Iwamoto to the lineup. In his first start in nearly three years, the youngster dazzled and confounded the Swallows bats, limiting them to 5 hits in 7 effective innings. The Tigers bats were also silent, but a 2-run RBI double by Yamato in the sixth provided enough offense to give the team all they needed to win. The victory was also preserved thanks to a clever fielding ruse by Kosuke Fukudome, who feigned being able to track down a hit to right, slowing down the runners, then relaying a throw home via Uemoto and gunning down the potential tying run. Closer Seung-hwan Oh struggled once again, but managed to preserve the win with a scoreless ninth. Final Score: Tigers 2, Swallows 1.
Last year’s surprise rookie Suguru Iwazaki got the start for the third game, and looked to be in control through four innings. The Tigers bats gave no support until a Nishoka dribbler found its way to right field, plating Toritani in the fifth. Unfortunately, that is also when the wheels fell off the cart for Iwazaki. He and reliever Kentaro Kuwahara combined to give up six hits, including a 2-run home run to Tetsuto Yamada, and before the team could come back up to the plate again, they were faced with a 5-1 deficit. Nishioka, who got three hits on the night, brought another run home in the seventh, but the rally died prematurely when slugger Mauro Gomez grounded into a double play. Reliever Daiki Enokida served up a grand slam home run to Yamada in the eighth to round out the scoring. Final Score: Swallows 9, Tigers 2.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, two of my biggest fears about the team seem to be coming true. First, the relief squad is not providing much relief. In this series alone, they combined to allow 4 earned runs in 8 1/3 innings. This does not factor in the first series, in which they surrendered 6 ER in 10 innings as well. Current ERA: 4.91. Second, the bats are so hit-and-miss, it’s not even funny. Big innings have been preceded and followed by several innings of silence. In this series alone, they scored three in inning 1, got nothing in innings 2-14, scored twice in inning 15, got nothing again from innings 16-22. No one expects runs every inning, but a little more consistency from the hitters would be nice. Several players have yet to hit their stride. Hopefully facing the so-far woeful (but longtime rival) Giants over the weekend will put some fire in their bellies.
Series notes: Thursday’s game featured the professional debuts of pitcher Hiroya Shimamoto (2 IP, 1 H, 0 ER) and outfielder Taiga Egoshi (1 AB, 0 H, 1 HBP). Combined with Tsuyoshi Ishizaki‘s debut against the Dragons, already three Tigers have seen their first action as pros this season. Hopefully the young players can make their presence felt in 2015… Matt Murton was a beast at Jingu Stadium last season, but finished this series just 2-for-11 (.182). Hopefully he can find his 2014 mojo soon… Gomez hit into three double plays in the series, and managed just two singles… Prior to Thursday’s game, third baseman Ryota Imanari was recalled from the farm. The team sent catcher Takashi Shimizu down to Naruohama to make room for him… Newly-signed reliever Mario Santiago made his debut on the farm on Wednesday, throwing three innings of shutout ball.