Series Recap – June 2-4, 2015

It was a beautiful night for a baseball game on Tuesday as the Tigers hosted the Chiba Lotte Marines.

 After finally reaching the .500 mark for the first time since early April, the Tigers proceeded to fall right back into mediocrity with two straight blowout losses to the Saitama Seibu Lions, ending May with a 12-13 record, and only staying in third thanks to even worse play (or luck?) from the Dragons, Swallows and Carp. How would the team do with 6 straight home games against Pacific League opponents this week? The first set was against the Chiba Lotte Marines, who held a similar record to the Tigers heading into this one.

“Stone-faced Buddha” Oh tries to regain his composure after a nightmarish ninth on Tuesday.

Game 1: I was once again able to take in a game at the stadium, and once again witnessed Minoru Iwata pitching like his true self: giving up his share of hits and walks, but escaping most of his jams unscathed. This one was no different, though the first run of the game went against him in part because Ryota Imanari muffed a ground ball that should have started a double play. The Tigers retaliated with runs in the second and third frames, coming off the bats of Hayata Itoh and Mauro Gomez, but Iwata allowed the Marines to tie it up in the top of the 4th, as leadoff hitter Luis Cruz hit a rocket to the left field stands. The game remained knotted until the seventh, when the Tigers mounted a rally (one that should have gotten them more than one run). Hiroki Uemoto came through in the clutch with the potential game-winner. Then, the ninth happened. (Click here for a fuller report/commentary.) Heartbreak at Koshien, as the Tigers dropped the first game, falling to 3 games below .500 and tied for fourth in the CL. Final Score: Marines 6, Tigers 3.

What are you so happy about and who are you running from, Tori?

What are you so happy about and who are you running from, Tori?

Game 2: The man with the huge scoreless innings streak was set to put an end to the Tigers’ slide in this one. Shintaro Fujinami had gone 26 straight innings without allowing a single run, and extended it another six in this game, while striking out 11 more batters to extend his CL lead to 81 strikeouts. And the Tigers bats came out angry and ready to give the team a lead that even the worst relief corps could not surrender. Gomez started the party with a 2-run home run in the first, then Fujinami himself knocked in a run in the second. Kosuke Fukudome added to the fun in the third and fifth, then Itoh in the same frame, and even Matt Murton joined the party in the sixth. By the time the “lucky 7th” had come around, the game was a joke. Eight Tigers runs to nothing for the Marines, and Fujinami still going strong. Then the unthinkable happened. A misplayed single to right (where Itoh had moved to replace Fukudome) led to three bases, then a strikeout later, a poorly fielded grounder by Uemoto scored the Marines’ first run. Still, Fujinami got the second out without allowing another run, and the fans were ready for the balloon release. But hit followed hit after hit, and relievers replaced relievers, and the crushing blow came off Imae’s bat: a 3-run home run against Ryoma Matsuda, tying the score at 8. Fans and players alike were deflated, as were the balloons, released in frustration for the second straight night. No scoring over the next three innings (held tight by relievers Shinobu Fukuhara and Seung-hwan Oh), and in the bottom of the 10th, things still looked bad for the Tigers. The bottom of the order was due up. But Shunsuke led off with a double and advanced to third after a Keisuke Kanoh walk and a Katsuhiko Saka pinch hit single. With just one out, captain Takashi Toritani was due up, and he made no mistake and wasted no time: a deep fly to left easily scored Shunsuke, and the team narrowly avoided heartbreak for the second straight night. Final Score: Tigers 9, Marines 8.

Egoshi and Iwasada showed us tonight that the kids are alright.

Egoshi and Iwasada showed us tonight that the kids are alright.

Game 3: I’m sure I was not the only fan who was nervous about this one. Young 2013 first draft pick Yuta Iwasada (he of the 11.57 ERA so far on the year) was going up against the team that had already scored 14 runs in this series. However, right from the start he held them in check. In fact, he threw 6 2/3 shutout innings and left the game with a 1-0 lead, thanks to a second inning Taiga Egoshi RBI triple that was centimeters from being a home run. Pinch hitter Yamato managed to bunt hit to left field in the seventh, after which Toritani walked and Uemoto hit a ball to deep left center, scoring the two baserunners. That was all the scoring in this one, as the combination of Yuya Andoh, Kazuya Takamiya, Fukuhara and Oh closed the door the rest of the way. Final Score: Tigers 3, Marines 0.

Series Notes: Before the first game of the series, it was announced that former closer Kyuji Fujikawa, who had been released by the Texas Rangers, would not re-sign with the Tigers. Instead, he would play ball near his hometown in Kochi Prefecture in the Independent League. Incidentally, Fujikawa holds the team record for longest scoreless streak at 47 2/3 innings. Fujinami is sixth in club history with his 32… Itoh injured his left thumb in the second game, and is set to go on the disabled list. Ryota Arai played third base on the farm on June 4, and should rejoin the team for the next series. Kentaro Sekimoto (who has as many hits as beanings this year) also hit the DL with a wounded left oblique muscle… Somehow the Pacific League feasted on Central League teams this week, and the Tigers were able to make some breathing room for themselves in the standings. Imagine if they had won on Tuesday! Here are the current standings:

15-6-4 Standings

Series Recap: May 26-28, 2015

It was a beautiful day to be at the ballpark on Tuesday.

 This season has been one of streaks for the Tigers. Earlier, they went a whole month without stopping any losing streak at 1 or being stopped after just 1 win. Since that time, they have done the opposite, losing to DeNA, winning the middle match and losing the finale. Heading into the Interleague portion of the schedule, could they bounce back and start a new winning streak? Their opponents would be the equally mediocre Rakuten Eagles.

Iwata threw one of his better games of the year, going the distance and shutting out the Eagles on 3 hits, 4 walks and 10 strikeouts.

Iwata threw one of his better games of the year, going the distance and shutting out the Eagles on 3 hits, 4 walks and 10 strikeouts.

Game 1: The Tigers, though, continued another streak they had going, accomplishing something they had struggled with until just recently. In each of the three games against the Baystars, they put up at least one run in the first inning. They did the same thing when Takashi Toritani led off with a walk, was bunted over to second by (who else?) Yamato, and hit home by Kosuke Fukudome. (Side note: I must be a bringer of good luck to the former Cub/Indian, because in the four games I’ve attended that he played in, he has gone 6/11 with 2 HR and 6 RBI. The team is 3-1 in those games.)

Minoru Iwata was coming off his worst start of the year, as he got eaten alive by the Yomiuri Giants at home last week. In this one, despite poor control of his pitches (4 BB) he was able to keep the Eagles guessing all night (10 K). He didn’t give up a hit until the 5th inning, and only allowed two more the rest of the way. It was his first complete game shutout in 4 years.

The highlight for me, though, was Mauro Gomez‘s 2-run blast in the home half of the fifth (video here). Having already been walked twice, I’m sure he was anxious to just make connection with something… and he did. It was a full-count fork ball, low and outside but still within the strike zone. He crushed it, and although the ball never went much higher than 25 feet in the air, it carried quite easily over the wall in left-center.

 

As always, the atmosphere at Koshien Stadium was electric, despite a leaner attendance than the Tigers tend to get for their Central League opponents. Singing “Rokko Oroshi” with 30,000+ other fanatics is a great way to cap off the night, and of course everyone leaves a little happier when the men in pinstripes come out on top. Final Score: Tigers 3, Eagles 0.

This is becoming a pretty familiar site - Shintaro roars as he walks off the mound, shutting out his opponents yet again.

This is becoming a pretty familiar site – Shintaro roars as he walks off the mound, shutting out his opponents yet again.

Game 2: Let’s keep this one short, as the game did not feature a lot of action. There really were not even many scoring chances, as Manabu Mima held off the Tigers for 8 innings, while Shintaro Fujinami completed 10 innings of shutout ball (with 13 strikeouts) before being replaced in the bottom of the 10th by a pinch hitter. Seung-hwan Oh pitched a shutout 11th inning, and a Gomez single was followed up with a walk-off home run by Fukudome. Great pitching by the Tigers’ starters so far in this series, and just enough clutch hitting for the Tigers to open interleague play with two wins! Final Score: Tigers 2, Eagles 0.

Sometimes even Itoh can be clutch. The Tigers battled back from an early 3-0 deficit. How'd this one end? Read the rest of the article for the answer!

Sometimes even Itoh can be clutch. His 8th inning RBI brought the Tigers all the way back from an early 3-0 deficit. How’d this one end? Read the rest of the article for the answer!

Game 3: Tonight’s game would appear to be the last one for awhile for Mario Santiago, as the Tigers plan to send him down and call up Randy Messenger to start tomorrow’s game. Things got off to a rough start once again for the Puerto Rican, as he gave up 2 runs on 4 hits in the first, then served up a solo shot in the 5th. The Tigers were down 3-0 at that point, and had yet to register a hit when Santiago left the game. Then at last, the bats came to life. Toritani and Fumiya Araki singled, Matt Murton brought Toritani home on a sacrifice fly, and then Fukudome’s double helped Araki score from first. The Tigers went from looking hopeless and helpless to being down just a run. Another great chance presented itself in the seventh, but the team could not capitalize. Then in the eighth, Fukudome hit his second double of the night, and tied the game on a Hayata Itoh single to right. These scrappy Tigers are a fun team to watch, though they certainly do not win the easy way very often! The Tigers relievers (Ryoma Matsuda, Kazuya Takamiya, Oh and Shinobu Fukuhara) kept the Eagles at bay through the eleventh (though not without drama in extras), and the Tigers missed a golden chance in the ninth. In the bottom of the 11th, with the game pushing 4 3/4 hours, the unthinkable happened. With two outs, Araki singled (his sixth time on base on the night), and three straight walks brought home the winning run. The official game-winning RBI went to none other than Fukudome, who had an outstanding series. Final Score: Tigers 4, Eagles 3.

15-5-28 Standings

Series Notes: Murton picked up a modasho on Tuesday, getting three singles including an infield shot to third. He seems to have lost a step from seasons past, but still managed to leg one out… Tsuyoshi Nishioka‘s elbow injury (ligament damage) is much more serious than originally diagnosed. Some reports question whether or not he will return this season… Ryota Arai, on the other hand, hopes to return after the minimum 10 days on the disabled list. The swelling in his bruised knee is already subsiding, the team reports… Fujinami’s personal shutout streak is now at 26 innings. He’s got 4 complete games on the year, all coming in May, and his ERA for the month was 0.88 (and is 2.10 on the season). Someone’s starting to look like an ace again… Toritani is now riding a 7-game hitting streak. His average has climbed over .250 for the first time in weeks… Young 2012 first-round pick Fumiya Hojoh made the first plate appearance of his career in the fifth as a pinch hitter for Santiago. He popped up in foul territory to first base… Catcher Shinji Komiyama also had his first at-bat of the year in the eighth, and struck out with men on first and second and two outs… Infielder Yuto Morikoshi also stepped up to the dish for the first time in 2015. He popped up to short in the 10th.

Series Recap – May 22-24, 2015

Through the Giants series, and all season long, really, the Tigers have struggled to put runs up in the opening innings of games. In fact, dating back to February 15, the Tigers had gone 6 straight games without putting up a run in the first FIVE innings of any game! This obviously puts a lot of pressure on the starting pitcher, as the Tigers’ track record when giving up the first run of a game is quite bad. Here’s how the series against Central League-leading DeNA Baystars went down:

This lead's gotta be safe, right? Five nothing in the third? Super Mario on the mound? It's just the first-place Baystars, after all...

This lead’s gotta be safe, right? Five nothing in the third? Super Mario on the mound? It’s just the first-place Baystars, after all…

Game 1: Last time Mario Santiago took the mound, the team did not put any runs up until he was out of the game. This time, they spotted him five runs on: a Kosuke Fukudome RBI ground-out and Hiroki Uemoto double in the first, a two-run Takashi Toritani home run in the second, and a solo blast by Fukudome in the third. This one looked all but over, when the fifth inning happened. A walk between two singles (one scoring a run), then a three-run blast by emerging superstar Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh. “Super Mario” left the game mid-inning and Ryoma Matsuda came in to finish up the fifth and preserve the lead, but then put a runner on in the seventh, and Kazuya Takamiya couldn’t strand him. Tie game. Enter the bottom of the ninth, when reliever Shinobu Fukuhara gave up a leadoff hit. Then with two outs and a runner on second, the crushing blow came in the form of a base hit to the right field corner. The Baystars crawled all the way back from a 5-0 deficit. Final Score: Baystars 6, Tigers 5.

Fukudome led the way for the Tigers with 3 RBI on the day. This comes on the heels of a solo home run the day before. Is the Tigers' hitting finally finding its groove?

Fukudome led the way for the Tigers with 3 RBI on Saturday. This comes on the heels of a solo home run the day before. Is the Tigers’ hitting finally finding its groove?

Game 2: Again the Tigers started this one well, with Matt Murton driving a ball down the right field line, bringing Toritani home, giving the visitors a quick 1-0 lead. It stayed this way until the third, when Tsutsugoh again burned the Tigers, this time with an RBI single off starter Atsushi Nohmi. Neither team managed to take the lead until the ninth, as both pitchers clamped down on the batters. A Mauro Gomez walk was followed by a pinch-run stolen base (by Fumiya Araki) and a bad throw that allowed him to advance to third. Fukudome hit a deep fly to left, scoring Araki easily. Uemoto then doubled to left-center, advanced to third on a bad throw, and the Tigers were ready to extend their lead. Unfortunately, a Kentaro Sekimoto pop up to catcher and an Akihito Fujii grounder to short ended the top of the inning. Now the pressure was on Nohmi to hold back the Baystars bats. He couldn’t. A Tsutsugoh double was followed by a Baldiris single, and the home team tied it up. On to extras. Toritani draws a one-out walk, then goes all the way to third on a wild pitch. Shunsuke strikes out on a bad pitch (for the second time this game). Two outs. Yamato and Araki due up. Not looking too hopeful. Amazingly, both walk on 4 straight pitches, bringing up the grizzly veteran Fukudome. One pitch is all it took. A single up the middle scored two, and the Tigers had their biggest lead of the game, 4-2. Then, instead of bringing in the usual closer, Wada elected to go with Fukuhara again. Perhaps this was a way of showing continued trust in the man who lost the previous day. (Turns out Oh got sick over the weekend and was unable to play.) Anyways, the old veteran got through the inning without issuing a runner. Final Score: Tigers 4, Baystars 2.

Wada had plenty to be mad about. Not just the plunking that Uemoto took in the ninth. Not just his team's play as they coughed up two leads in the series. He ought to be more than a little mad at himself, too!

Wada had plenty to be mad about. Not just the plunking that Uemoto took in the ninth. Not just his team’s play as they coughed up two leads in the series. He ought to be more than a little mad at himself, too!

Game 3: Let me preface this by saying I didn’t watch the game, and am compiling this summary from what I read on Twitter and my Facebook Tigers group (join here!)

Somehow the Tigers managed to score early in three straight games! Toritani’s hit was followed by an error on Shunsuke’s grounder, then Murton-Gomez-Fukudome driving in a run each. Three run lead. However, today’s starter, Yuta Iwasada, made his debut an ugly one. Hits and walks were given out like candy as he surrendered a run in the first, then four more crossed the dish in the third. Not all of them were his, but reliever Kuwahara fed the ball to the Baystars like they were his four year old son (note: I don’t think he has a son) and this was a tee-ball game. Then Daiki Enokida joined the fun, giving the Baystars a seemingly insurmountable lead in the fifth, 7-3. Things looked bleak for the Tigers until pinch hitter Hayata Itoh hit his second long ball of the year in the seventh, cutting the lead in half. Continuing the “Day of Amnesty,” Matsuda gave the Baystars a run in the eighth, and the deficit was back to 3 with just three outs to go. So what happens? BS closer Yamasaki drills Uemoto in the head, bringing Wada out in a hurry. So did members of both teams, as this came close to becoming a full-scale brawl. (See video footage here.) The Tigers continued to pile up walks late in games, as Sekimoto and Itoh drew free passes, then Toritani added another to push a run across the plate. With just one out and the bases loaded, the Tigers were seemingly just a hit from tying or winning this one! A Yamato line drive looked good but was nabbed by the third baseman. Murton came up with two outs and… struck out. Game over. Final Score: Baystars 8, Tigers 6.

Series Notes: Tsuyoshi Nishioka left the first game in the fifth and immediately went to the hospital to have his elbow checked. It appears the injury is serious and he is due to miss extended time. The team called up Yuto Morikoshi to fill his roster spot. Ryota Arai took Nishioka’s place at third for the rest of the series… Since his mini-slump and all the fuss about his place on the starting roster, Toritani has gone 6 for 11 (.545). Despite his failed stolen base attempt in a crucial situation in Game 3, he is definitely turning things around… Catcher Ryutaro Umeno, who has not seen much action in the past week, has been sent down to the minors, likely to fine-tune his game-calling… Third baseman Ryota Imanari played in the Western League for the first time since his injury, and other than not being able to run too fast, was fine. However, word is that he will definitely not be ready for Interleague play, which begins on Tuesday… Three of the four pitchers from Sunday’s game (Iwasada, Kuwahara and Enokida) have been sent to the farm for reconditioning… Ryota Arai injured his left knee in Sunday’s game and has been placed on the disabled list.

Here are the current Central League standings.

15-5-24 Standings

I hope to write up brief team profiles for the Pacific League teams, whom we will face three times each. First up: the Rakuten Eagles at Koshien! I will be at Game 1… let’s GO TIGERS!

Series Recap – May 4-6, 2015

tigersdragonsmay2015The weather during Golden Week was perfect, and the Tigers had a golden opportunity to do two things: end their two-game losing streak and win over a lot more young fans. Prior to games, children were invited to make cardboard Tigers “kabuto” (warrior helmets), and players even joined them on Tuesday. Facing the fourth place Chunichi Dragons also meant that a sweep would move the Tigers into at least fourth place in the Central League standings. Could the yellow-clad home squad give their fans something to cheer about during the national holiday season? Here is a brief look at the three game set.

Game 1: I will not come to starter Randy Messenger‘s defense, as much as I love the guy. The Dragons were all over him right from the start, even though nothing was hit with authority until the fourth inning. Through four innings, Messenger gave up 11 hits and six runs. Not that the bleeding stopped when the relievers took over. Hiroya Shimamoto was one of the lone bright spots, pitching two shutout innings. However, adding insult to injury were the seventh (1 run allowed by Kazuhito Futagami) and the ninth (two runs given up by Ryoma Matsuda). For their part, the Tigers managed just two singles through eight innings and four hits overall. Two of these, including an RBI double in the ninth, came off the bat of Kosuke Fukudome. This was not the start the Tigers wanted to their Golden Week series, especially after back-to-back losses to the Giants last weekend. Final Score: Dragons 9, Tigers 2.

Starter Minoru Iwata "helped his own cause" (overused cliche of the century when it comes to pitchers) with a bases-clearing triple in the sixth inning of Tuesday's game.

Starter Minoru Iwata “helped his own cause” (overused cliche of the century when it comes to pitchers) with a bases-clearing triple in the sixth inning of Tuesday’s game.

Game 2: It seems starter Minoru Iwata can’t buy a run from his Tigers teammates. Last season his average run support per nine innings was a mere 2.85 (so despite his sparkling 2.54 ERA, he finished 2014 with a 9-8 record), and this year heading into this game, it was just 2.57 per nine, so even with a 2.92 ERA before the game, he had just one win on the season. This game was no different than most Iwata starts this season. Until the sixth inning, that is. Both teams scored in the opening frame, with Mauro Gomez providing the key hit for the Tigers. After that, the game settled down as neither team put a runner past second base through five. As the home side of the sixth came around and the Tigers hitters loaded the bases (Matt Murton, Hayata Itoh hits followed by a Ryutaro Umeno walk), an interesting choice presented itself to manager Yutaka Wada. With two outs, do you bring in a pinch hitter to spell Iwata at the plate, or keep him in and hope he can do something at the plate and then keep up his stellar pitching performance? Surprisingly, Wada opted for the latter, and it paid off. Iwata cleared the bases with a triple, giving him a 4-1 lead to work with. He went one more inning, giving up a run in the seventh, but that was it for the Dragons. The Tigers hit two more triples (Takashi Toritani in the 7th and Umeno in the 8th) but did not add any insurance runs. Still, Iwata picked up his second win of the season, thanks to his own bat. Final Score: Tigers 4, Dragons 2.

Ryota snapped out of his season-long funk on Wednesday with this 8th-inning pinch hit home run. But the best was yet to come! (Details below)

Ryota snapped out of his season-long funk on Wednesday with this 8th-inning pinch hit home run (video). But the best was yet to come! (Details below)

Game 3: The Tigers’ bats remained silent once again in the rubber match, as Suguru Iwazaki made his first start in nearly three weeks. Both pitchers kept the bats at bay for the most part, but a few missed pitches cost our young southpaw and the Dragons put up single runs i the third and sixth innings. The Tigers had a few chances, including runners on first and third with just one out in the first inning, but a Gomez double play ended that threat. In the sixth, with Hiroki Uemoto on first (and running), Toritani’s drive to left center was cut off and Uemoto was easily thrown out at home, and the Tigers remained down 2-0. Pinch hitter Ryota Arai made it 2-1 with a solo blast in the bottom of the eighth, leaving the Tigers down a run with just three outs to go. In the ninth, Uemoto and Toritani quickly bowed out, and it looked like this one would end badly for the home team, but drama is what the Tigers do best. Gomez hit one up the middle, then Fukudome, Murton and pinch hitter Kentaro Sekimoto coaxed walks out of the Dragons relievers, tying the game at 2. Somehow, the order had come back around to Ryota, who took two quick strikes, and on the fifth pitch of the at bat, lunged at a low pitch, getting enough of it to clear the infield and bringing Fukudome home. Final Score: Tigers 3, Dragons 2.

Series Notes: Gomez extended his hitting streak to seven games with a single in the bottom of the ninth of Wednesday’s game. Of his eight hits during the streak, seven were singles… Iwata said heading into his sixth inning at bat that he thought to himself, “If I can get a hit here, surely I’ll be the hero!” He sure was!… Ryota joins his older brother, former Tiger Takahiro, in the Golden Week heroes’ circle. “Oniichan” had 5 RBIs on Tuesday as the Carp smoked the Giants 13-2… The Tigers host the Hiroshima Carp over the weekend. They will play a 3-game series against each Central League team before interleague play begins at the end of this month. Here a look at the CL standings after Wednesday’s action:

15-5-6 Standings

Series Recap – April 28-30, 2015

When it rains, it pours. And when it shines, it blazes. The Tigers went all of April without winning a single series, following a season sweep of the Dragons to start the season. And now they have found a way to sweep another series and crawl to within a game of .500. The winning streak is now at four, and the gap between them and the rest of the league has been significantly narrowed. The players look happier, the fans are happier, and Golden Week is just around the corner. Let’s have a quick look at what went down at Koshien over the past three days:

Taiga Egoshi launches a Naruse offering into the left field stands for a 3-0 Tigers lead. It was his first career home run.

Taiga Egoshi launches a Naruse offering into the left field stands for a 3-0 Tigers lead. It was his first career home run.

Game 1: The upstart Swallows brought newly acquired pitcher Yoshihisa Naruse to the mound against the Tigers’ star import Randy Messenger. This one was determined solely by the long ball, as the Tigers opened the scoring in the second inning with a three-run blast from rookie outfielder Taiga Egoshi. Prior to his at bat, veterans Kosuke Fukudome and Matt Murton set the table nicely, and on the second pitch he faced, Egoshi made no mistake, driving the ball well over the fence in left center. These three hits represented the extent of the Tigers’ offense, and the rest was left up to Messenger and the relief squad. Despite giving up a fair number of hits and baserunners, the only damage against Messenger was a solo blast in the seventh, one that just missed landing in the glove of a leaping Murton. Final Score: Tigers 3, Swallows 1.

A win at last! Minoru Iwata celebrates victory with Matt Murton on the heroes' podium after Wednesday's 3-1 triumph. It was Iwata's first win of the season despite his consistency right from the start.

A win at last! Minoru Iwata celebrates victory with Matt Murton on the heroes’ podium after Wednesday’s 3-1 triumph. It was Iwata’s first win of the season despite his consistency right from the start.

Game 2: How would lefty Minoru Iwata follow up last week’s outing? Perfect through six against the Baystars, the Tigers’ #1 philanthropist was actually quite generous this time around, scattering 10 hits over seven innings. Fortunately for him, none of these came around to score, and he left the game lined up to be the winning pitcher yet again, as the Tigers staked him a 3-0 lead as they had done for Messenger the night before. This time it was the result of some timely hitting from their cleanup hitters Mauro Gomez and Murton. They jumped on Swallows starter Ishiyama early with two runs in the first, then combined for another run in the sixth when Murton drove in Gomez, who had advanced to third base on a pass ball and a wild pitch. Again the relievers held down the fort, but not without a little drama as veteran Yuya Andoh loaded the bases with no outs in the eighth. Fortunately he was bailed out by Kazuya Takamiya and Shinobu Fukuhara, and closer Seung-hwan Oh came in to finish things off in the ninth for the second straight night. Final Score: Tigers 3, Swallows 1.

Hiroki Uemoto was the hero of the night, knocking in three runs in the bottom of the seventh.

Hiroki Uemoto was the hero of the night, knocking in three runs in the bottom of the seventh.

Game 3: For the first time in the series, the Tigers trailed. Starter Akira Iwamoto gave up a single run in the third inning, but just two innings later, Hayata Itoh doubled home Murton, who was on first base after a walk. The score remained tied for two more innings, but in the seventh the Tigers bats came to life. This, however, was not without its drama as well. A leadoff triple by Fukudome made it look like the lead was guaranteed, but a sharp grounder by Murton and a pinch-hit strikeout by Keisuke Kanoh left things in doubt. Fortunately, the third straight pinch hitter of the inning, Shunsuke, walked to load up the bases. The steadily improving Hiroki Uemoto came up to the dish and quickly slashed a double to left field, clearing the bases. Tsuyoshi Nishioka followed that up with an RBI single, and the game was suddenly a blowout. The relievers (who had been holding down the fort since the start of the sixth) took care of the rest, ensuring the Swallows never put up a crooked number all series. Final Score: Tigers 5, Swallows 1.

Series Notes: As mentioned in a previous article, closer Oh now holds the team record for most career saves (48) by an import player. Until this series started, the record belonged to the much beloved Jeff Williams… Three foreigners have established club marks or league marks this season. Early in the campaign, Murton played in his 703rd career game with the team, most by a foreigner. Last week, Messenger broke the CL record for most double-digit strikeout performances by a foreigner (12). Can Gomez set a club record this season, too?… While Murton has found his way out of a bad slump, it looks like Takashi Toritani has started one of his own. His defense was outstanding all series, but he has now gone 11 at bats without a hit, and is just .250 on the year… Egoshi’s game-winning home run on his first career bomb was the first for the Tigers since Akinobu Okada accomplished the same feat back in 1980…

Here are the current standings:

15-4-30 Standings

Up next for the Tigers after Friday off: a two-game weekend series at the EGG against the Yomiuri Giants. A sweep there would extend the winning streak from 4 to 6, and bring them above .500 for the first time since the beginning of April. GO TIGERS!

Miniseries Recap – April 25-26, 2015

No need to sound the alarm just yet, Tigers fans! Toritani to the rescue! His 3 RBIs on Sunday represented his first in over a week.

No need to sound the alarm just yet, Tigers fans! Toritani to the rescue! His 3 RBIs on Sunday represented his first in over a week.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…” — A Tale of Two Cities

How better to describe the last two games but to say that two different teams showed up each day. For each team.

The Tigers spent their weekend in Hiroshima, facing the last place Carp in a two-game series. The first game could not have gone worse for the Tigers, while the second game could not have gone much better.

The Tigers got pounced on early and often as the Carp walked all over the pinstripes on Saturday.

The Tigers got pounced on early and often as the Carp walked all over the pinstripes on Saturday.

Game 1: The Tigers started young ace Shintaro Fujinami against the Carp’s veteran hurler Hiroki Kuroda. Right from the beginning, Fujinami’s control was off, as was his pitch choice, as the Carp jumped on him for three hits and a run. He nearly plunked Kuroda with a couple of brushback pitches in the second, which caused both benches to clear and the Tigers to lose their composure. A fielding error by Mauro Gomez (who had been fighting a fever) brought home a run, and two more errors (a bobbled pop-up by Tsuyoshi Nishioka and a throwing error by Ryutaro Umeno) brought more runs across the plate for the home team. Then after Fujinami left the game, the relievers (Hiroya Shimamoto and Kazuyuki Kaneda) gave up bases-clearing triples in the sixth, and the Carp bats, which had been silent much of the season, came to life. The Tigers’ lone bright spot was spot starter Hayata Itoh, who recorded three hits including a 2-run home run in the top of the sixth. Final Score: Carp 11, Tigers 3.

A huge sixth inning on Sunday started with a Murton (right) RBI and was capped off with Gomez's RBI double.

A huge sixth inning on Sunday started with a Murton RBI and was capped off with Gomez’s RBI double.

Game 2: Once again, Atsushi Nohmi was led by veteran catcher Akihito Fujii, and the two combined for an excellent performance. Nohmi scattered six hits (all singles) and threw a complete game shut-out. The Tigers piled up ten hits and ten walks, and put up six runs in the sixth inning on RBI hits by Matt Murton, Takashi Toritani and Gomez, plus a bases-loaded walk drawn by Nishioka. The Carp only once had a runner in scoring position, and never put more than one man on base in a single inning. The Tigers, on the other hand, had at least two baserunners in six of the nine innings. Could this be a sign that the Tigers’ bats are coming to life? Final Score: Tigers 6, Carp 0.

Series Notes: Nishioka drew four walks in today’s game… Murton has now hit safely in three straight games, including three hits today for his first modasho of the season. Kosuke Fukudome also recorded three hits on the day… This was the first game all season that the Tigers won by more than three runs. In other words, closer Seung-hwan Oh stayed on the bench for a win for the first time this season out of ten wins… Toritani hit a foul ball in the fifth inning that set off a fire alarm at Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium. The game was halted for several minutes… Former Tiger Takahiro Arai reached base safely four times (2 hits, 2 walks) on Saturday and twice more (both hits) on Sunday. He finished the series 4-for-7 (.571)… Murton is hitting .417 (5-for-12) in the three games since moving down to the six slot. It will be interesting to see if they keep him there or move him back up to his customary spot (fifth) in the order… Rookie Taiga Egoshi made his return to the team (and the starting lineup) on Sunday, going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts… The Tigers host first place Yakult Swallows early this week at Koshien, and then play a short two-game series at Tokyo Dome against the Giants on the weekend. This is a much-needed chance to gain some ground in the standings. GO TIGERS!

The Game I Saw – Tigers 2, Giants 0?

The view from the right field stands last night. Though distant, it sure was a beautiful night to be at Koshien Stadium!

The view from the right field stands last night. Though distant, it sure was a beautiful night to be at Koshien Stadium! The Tigers lost 3-2 despite a pretty good night all around.

The Hanshin Tigers game I saw last night was one of total dominance for the home team. Starter Randy Messenger pitched 6 innings of 4-hit, 10-strikeout shutout ball while the hitters put up two runs in the 4th inning. The relievers (Kaneda, Takamiya, Shimamoto, Matsuda and Ishizaki) cobbled together two more innings of shutout ball as well. The Giants pressed at times for runs but could not bring anyone home.

Unfortunately for the team and its fans, this was the “game I saw” and does not count the first inning, one I spent lining up for a special fan club gift, in which the Giants rallied for three runs before anyone realized the game had started. So the final score was 3-2 Giants, despite the misleading headline.

I will not throw anyone under the bus, but I do have to say that so far this year (not just last night), Matt Murton has been a shadow of the man he was last season, not to mention the other four seasons preceding it. His four plate appearances went: groundout to pitcher, groundout to second, groundout to second, walk. He has grounded out too many times to count (OK, it’s been 10 so far in 16 at bats this week) and just is not hitting the ball well at all. I love the guy and do not place the blame on him for any of the team’s losses… but they definitely need the Murton of 2010-2014 to show up. I’m sure he is more aware of this than anyone else.

On the bright side, Kosuke Fukudome has found his game this year, and actually leads the Central League in OBP among Japanese players so far. Mauro Gomez seems to be hitting the ball better as well, albeit he now has a 15-game homer-less drought going. Hiroki Uemoto definitely looks more comfortable in the leadoff slot than he did batting second or seventh, as well. Ryutaro Umeno is hitting the ball much better than he did last year, striking out way less frequently and spraying the ball all over the outfield, too. There are a lot of positives the team can carry out of the recent funk.

Once Murton picks up his pace and the team finds a solid center field option (Yamato has struggled mightily, Shunsuke is a decent place holder but not likely the answer, and Hayata Itoh and Taiga Egoshi still need to mature as hitters and especially as fielders), the Tigers should be able to right the ship. Hang on tight, Tigers fans… the wins will start to pile up soon, and not just the ones that start in the second inning like it did for me last night!

Series Recap – April 14-16, 2015

Nishioka pumps his fist after driving home the winning run in Game 3. The Tigers bounced back from back-to-back walkoff losses with 6 runs, their highest total of the month.

Nishioka pumps his fist after driving home the winning run in Game 3. The Tigers bounced back from back-to-back walkoff losses with 6 runs, their highest total of the month.

Despite winning the series finale against the Carp on Sunday, the Tigers were in no place to get complacent. In fact, they juggled their roster and order throughout this series in hopes of generating more offense and breaking out of their losing skid. They brought in Shunsuke, Keisuke Kanoh and Hayata Itoh as starting outfielders and even put Hiroki Uemoto back in the leadoff spot for game 3.

15-4-Dragons

Game 1: For the second straight game, the Tigers open up a lead (something they have struggled to do this season) and cough it up. To his surprise, catcher Ryutaro Umeno hit a solo home run in the third inning to give the team a 1-0 lead. Starter Minoru Iwata‘s lone bad inning was the fourth, when he started the inning with a walk and two hits to tie the game. The ensuing double play brought home another run and the Tigers found themselves back in familiar territory, down 2-1. Time ran out on Iwata as he again pitched fairly well but would not factor into the decision, as the Tigers could only manage one run after he was pulled for a pinch hitter. He was replaced after the seventh with the score tied 2-2 (back-to-back pinch hits by Kanoh and Kentaro Sekimoto). The team brought out 3-game winner Ryoma Matsuda to pitch the eighth and ninth, and unfortunately he could not hold down the fort, as the Dragons pushed him around for two hits including a walk-off single to end the game. Final Score: Dragons 3, Tigers 2

The odds caught up to reliever Ryoma Matsuda, who won 2 relief games against the Dragons earlier in the year. He was the victim of two straight walk-off losses in this series.

The odds caught up to reliever Ryoma Matsuda, who won 2 relief games against the Dragons earlier in the year. He was the victim of two straight walk-off losses in this series.

Game 2: Young starter Akira Iwamoto hoped to bounce back from a mediocre outing in his last one, and on paper it looks like he did. He threw 5 2/3 innings and just one earned run against, however, the leadoff hitter got on base in every inning and he allowed a total of 10 hits (and plunked a guy as well), so perhaps he was lucky to leave just a run down. The Tigers bats were not too bad either, but they never created any scoring chances until Takashi Toritani doubled in a run in the eighth. Unfortunately the rally ended with a Matt Murton double play (more on that later) and the game went into the ninth tied 1-1. As Japanese managers like to do, the team brought Matsuda in to the exact same situation he blew the night before. This is supposed to show the pitcher that the team has confidence in him and that he can overcome tough situations like that. Unfortunately the results were the same as the previous night, as the Dragons pushed the winning run across the plate to end the game. Final Score: Dragons 2, Tigers 1

Matt Murton takes exception to an outside strike 2 called against him in the eighth inning of Wednesday's game. As is typical in Kansai, the media was all over this story after the game.

Matt Murton takes exception to an outside strike 2 called against him in the eighth inning of Wednesday’s game. After nearly being ejected, he grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Game 3: Someone or something lit a fire under the Tigers’ bats. The first inning started with six straight baserunners, including consecutive RBI singles by Mauro Gomez, Murton and Kosuke Fukudome. Umeno added an RBI on a groundout and the Dragons found themselves down 4 before they swung a bat. Fortunately for them, the third boulder (Suguru Iwazaki) was not at his best, and they managed to chase him before the end of the 4th by tying the game up. The usually unreliable relievers held down the fort for the game’s final 5 1/3 innings and the Tigers scored in the sixth and eighth innings (Umeno touched home on hits by Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Toritani, respectively) and Seung-hwan Oh closed the game out. Final Score: Tigers 6, Dragons 4

The Giants have heated up and the Tigers are a distant fifth place, but could make that ground up with a sweep of the Giants this weekend at Koshien. Here are the current standings.

15-4-15 Standings

Series Notes: The team demoted outfielder Taiga Egoshi and promoted Itoh on Tuesday, then de-activated Iwamoto and activated Yuya Andoh before Thursday’s game. With just four games next week, Iwamoto will not need to make a start again until the end of the month at the earliest… The Dragons won three straight walk-off games (and have five on the month) including their extra-innings victory Sunday over the Baystars. It set a club record and was the first time the Tigers lost back-to-back walk-offs since 2011… The Tigers fell to four games below .500 on Wednesday for the first time in April since 2001. They were the first Central League team to 10 losses (tying with the Carp) for the first time since 1997… The Tigers amassed a season-high 13 hits in Thursday’s win. Their high for runs is 10, also against the Dragons back on March 29.

2015 Season Preview, Part 2: Outfield

Today we continue our four-part series about the Tigers and the upcoming 2015 season. After checking in on the infield last time, we look at the outfield and general offense today. The second half of the series will look at starting pitchers and the relief squad. Alright, let’s finish up the fielders and bats!

Left Field

mattmurtonThis job belongs to none other than Matt Murton. The man just signed a new one-year contract worth a reported ¥450M (~US$3.8M). He has also been the team’s most consistent hitter for years, winning the batting title in 2014 with a .338 average. He has decent plate discipline, middling power and minimal speed. His work in the field is adequate but not spectacular. He is occasionally subbed out for either a defensive or base running replacement late in close games, a strategy that I have yet to see pay dividends. On one occasion, in fact, he was replaced by one of the scrawny speedsters and was unavailable when his last turn in the order came up (in a crucial situation, of course).

Center Field

yamatobuntLast year, save for a spell when he was injured, Yamato took hold of this position. It was actually just the first year he was a registered outfielder, though he has spent nearly every active inning on the big team out there. Let’s start with the positive. The man won a Gold Glove for his incredible fielding work. He was consistent all year, but really drew attention to his prowess in the playoffs, making countless diving catches and gunning down a runner to save a run as well. Now unfortunately for Yamato, his bat did not follow his glove in excellence. His BUNT did, as he led the league with 50 sacrifice bunts. More on this figure/strategy later. In the meantime, Yamato finished the year hitting a mediocre .264, which was actually a much leaner .235 until a September surge (28-for-71). According to an interview in the February Monthly Tigers magazine, Yamato recognizes that he needs to wield a more productive stick. He vows to get on base more, steal more bases and drop down more sacrifice bunts. How he’ll have time to do all that is beyond me, but of course I wish him all the best.

Right Field

Things could get a little interesting here. Aging veteran Kosuke Fukudome holds the post for the time being, and while his numbers show little to justify him getting it back automatically in 2015, he provided plenty of clutch moments down the stretch (particularly against the Carp) and has a keen eye. He also has history on his side. The Tigers love their aging stars who once saw more glorious days. Can Fukudome turn back the hands of time one last time and produce for one more year? His fielding is still quite solid for someone of his age, and there is little chance he will be replaced late in games, unless he is feeling fatigued.

The Up-and-Comers

#3 Draft Pick Taiga Egoshi

#3 Draft Pick Taiga Egoshi

The Tigers have plenty of players who are eager to get more playing time in the outfield. Right out of the gates at this year’s spring training, 2014 3rd pick Taiga Egoshi has impressed fans and coaches alike with his combination of power, speed and work ethic. Could he get some playing time in center this early in his time with the team? The jury is still out, and the preseason is still less than half over. Hayata Itoh has been with the team for a few years and shows some promise to be a starter someday. However, he also has poor discipline at the plate and gives the Koshien faithful headaches with his play in the field. Unless he steps things up this spring (and I have heard no such word myself), he does not appear to be a threat this year. Shunsuke was the main replacement for Yamato last year when the latter injured his obliques. He is, in my opinion, a poor man’s Yamato. Decent fielder, decent speed, no power. None. He does everything Yamato does but just not as well. Veteran Keisuke Kanoh may be used primarily as a pinch hitter, though he could fill in for one of the corner outfielders should the need arise. Shintaro Yokota is another name that is getting some buzz at the camps. He fits more of the power hitter mold, though we have yet to really see if this power translates against the NPB’s best pitchers. Finally, guys like Ryosuke Ogata, Kohei Shibata, Ken’ichi Tagami are still trying to find their niche with the team.

Overall Prognosis

My gut feeling tells me the Tigers are going to roll the same three guys out as last year. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but Yamato and Fukudome need to step up their production. Even if they do, though, the outfield lacks a true slugger that can change the outcome of a game with one swing of the bat. Murton looks to be in great shape and I hope to see him hit at least 20 HRs, but this group as a whole does not inspire too much fear in opposing pitchers.

Hitting Skills

Last season the Tigers got shut out a whopping 14 times (including twice in the playoffs). They also ranked second-to-last in team home runs with 94. The team batting average was .264, good for 3rd out of six Central League teams. They stole 55 bases as a team (dead last), and got caught 37 times. Even the team’s sacrifice bunt total (121) ranked third and its success rate (.801) a disappointing last in the CL. Perhaps the lone bright spot is that our hitters showed better discipline than any other, walking 483 times (1st) and striking out 1,009 times (4th). Only the Dragons and Swallows had better walk-to-strikeout ratios.

Still, the huge underlying problem is run production. Putting up that many bagels is unhealthy for any team’s fate, and even more alarming is the whopping 27 times they managed just a single run in a game (playoffs included). Their record in these games: 3-37-1. Where is the power game? Take Mauro Gomez’s 26 out of the picture and there’s only one other Tiger in double digits (Murton’s 14). Where’s the speed game? Take away Hiroki Uemoto’s 20 and you’ve got fewer than CL leader Takayuki Kajitani (DeNA) stole as an individual (39).

For all the talk of the psychological importance of that first run in a game, the Uemoto lead-off hit/walk followed by the Yamato sacrifice bunt grew really predictable and boring, really quick. Why not let him try to steal second more? (Granted, his success rate was a mere 66.7%.) While reading an interesting book by Masayuki Kakefu (Tigers’ legendary slugger) and Suguru Egawa (Giants’ legendary pitcher), I found something interesting. Egawa said that the sacrifice bunt often gave the pitcher a psychological edge. “Whew, they’re giving me a free out here. I think I can get out of this.” Now, not every pitcher will get out of every jam, but is there statistical proof that a runner on second with one out gives you better odds to score than a runner on first with no outs? I say use the strategy strategically, not mechanically! More hit-and-runs, more stolen base attempts, more attempts to hit the long ball! (Legend Kanemoto was quoted today as telling Egoshi, Yohkawa and Yokota to forget trying to hit .300 and instead try to hit 30 HRs. Amen to that!)

The batting order could also use some shuffling, in my amateur opinion. Matt Murton broke Ichiro’s record for hits in a season in 2010 with 214. He didn’t even lead the league in batting average that year, though it was higher (.349) than this year’s .338. The reason he could do it? He was the leadoff hitter! He got a ton more at bats! If you’re not going to let your leadoff hitter steal second, then you have to get your BEST hitter in there! More hits, more times on base, more chances at runs! Are you telling me Murton can’t reach second on a Yamato sacrifice bunt? Or that he won’t score from second on a Toritani single? I am not suggesting Murton bad lead all year, or that it will solve all their hitting problems. Creativity is the key. Get these players’ skill levels up, and let them play exciting baseball! I look forward to seeing a rejuvenated Tigers lineup this season! Without it, the team cannot possibly hope to replicate the magic of 2003 and 2005, let alone 1985.

Nippon Series – Who’s to DH in Games 3-5?

tigers2014

As most of you already know, the Nippon Series is tied 1-1 and is heading to Fukuoka for three games, where the Hawks will host the Tigers in the confines of YafuOku Dome. With the Pacific League team hosting, the rules change slightly as well. Instead of the pitcher getting an at-bat, each team designates one player to hit in his place for the whole game. He is called the designated hitter. (My apologies for writing very simply – most of you know the rule, but some don’t!)

TAraiThe Tigers normally do not enjoy this luxury, but the Hawks do, so they already have a few players who are accustomed to sitting on the bench all game except for those 4-5 at-bats. So the question, then, is this: Whom should the Tigers employ as their designated hitter in this series?

RAraiNaturally, one strategy they will consider is using a hitter who bats from the opposite side as the pitcher throws, that is, a right-handed batter against a left-handed pitcher, and vice-versa. Game 3 sees that Hawks starting lefty Kenji Ohtonari, so the Tigers will likely use a right-handed hitter as their DH. Games 4-5 will likely feature right-handed pitchers for the Hawks (perhaps Settsu and Nakata, and if they go with a shortened rotation, Standridge will go instead of one of the above – either way, two righties). In this case, the odds of the Tigers using a lefty as their DH increase.

ImanariHere is a list of all the players currently on the bench for the Tigers. First, the righties: Takahiro Arai, Ryota Arai, Keisuke Kanoh, Kentaro Sekimoto, Shunsuke, Ryutaro Umeno, and the catcher they don’t start – either Kazunari Tsuruoka or Akihito Fujii. Next, the lefties: Fumiya Araki, Ryota Imanari, Hayata Itoh, Katsuhiko Saka, Kohei Shibata.

ItohOf these, the likely candidates are the Arais, Kanoh, Sekimoto, Imanari and Itoh. I have read various columns and forums, and it seems like beyond these men, other options lie. For one, several of these players are capable third basemen, and since it is not Tsuyoshi Nishioka‘s (switch hitter) natural position, there is talk of him being the DH while one of these guys plays third. Another possibility is giving Matt Murton (righty) and his sore legs some rest, letting him DH while someone else patrols left field.

So the question is, which righty and lefty do you think are most suited for the DH role in these three games? Feel free to vote on these two polls and explain your votes in the comments!