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

Rumors & Ideas: Thinking Outside the Box

The events of the past few games have prompted sports writers to start dreaming up scenarios of how the Tigers can break out of their mediocrity, leaving the rest of the Central League behind them (assuming no other team snaps out of their funk). Here are the two most interesting ideas I have read, along with my opinion.

perezmug

The club should explore ways to get this guy up on the parent team.

1) After tonight’s start in Tokyo, put Randy Messenger on the 10-day DL, and call up Nelson Perez. With the All-Star Break coming soon (just 4 games between his start tonight and the break), he would be eligible to return for the second game after the break, which would also be against the hated Yomiuri Giants. The move would give the team at least a 5-game look at Perez in their lineup. He has been hitting quite well on the farm, raking at a .400 (12-for-30, 2 HRs) clip through 8 games. Surely after scoring just 4 runs in 3 games against the Dragons, no one in the organization is blind to the problem the team has scoring runs.

My Opinion: I say go for it. The team needs to take risks, and this one is about as unrisky as you can get. The plan was to plug Randy in for the second game of the Carp series right before the break, but they could also give the start to someone else. I had the idea of dropping Seung-hwan Oh to the farm in August in favor of Perez taking the 4th foreigner slot. (League regulations limit the number of imports on the active roster to 4.) Perhaps this would be a good “sneak preview” of how that might play out. Randy has been pitching extremely well lately, so there are two ways of seeing this: (1) Ride the hot hand. Let him pitch two games before the break and he’ll still be rested for the second half with 5 days off as usual; (2) Don’t overwork the workhorse of the staff! Give him 10 days off and see how well he does the rest of the year. I’m divided here, and would probably agree with the former if the team could get him enough run support to win games. However, as we’ve seen in recent weeks (years?) the team simply does not consistently reward its strong pitchers with victories. Let’s try this one out, bring up Perez and see what the kid’s got. A lineup with him and a red-hot Mauro Gomez, Matt Murton and (somewhat cooling off) Kosuke Fukudome would be a real pleasure to watch.

What's wrong with Nohmi? His performance of late has the team scratching its collective head.

What’s wrong with Nohmi? His performance of late has the team scratching its collective head.

2) Drop Atsushi Nohmi to the bullpen. Perhaps long relief is better suited to him at this stage of his career. That, or even what one blogger suggested: put Seung-hwan Oh in the set-up role and give the closer position to Nohmi. Intriguing to say the least. Nohmi has lost 9 games already this year and dropped 13 decisions last campaign, too. His ERA has risen significantly since the end of 2013, and he does not seem to have the stamina or ability to pitch long innings anymore. Further complicating things is Oh’s recent slide. The numbers look bad enough, but they could be much worse. He has gotten himself out of two bases-loaded (and fewer than 2 outs) jams in the last three weeks, so just a little bad luck and that ERA (and number of blown saves/losses) could be much more inflated than it already is. The rest of the bullpen has also been a weakness all year, and could use some reinforcement.

My opinion: As intriguing as this idea is, I’m going to have to pass on it. Nohmi has not been a reliever since 2008, and putting him in this role could destroy his confidence and make him even less effective than he already is. Instead, I propose restructuring the bullpen a little. Drop Yuya Andoh down to the farm for some rest (he is pushing 38, after all) while bringing up one of the young spot starters to do long relief work. The team would then have two guys (in addition to Hiroaki Saiuchi) who could pitch multiple innings, taking the pressure off some of the rest of the bullpen. Guys like Shoya Yamamoto, Takumi Akiyama, heck even Akira Iwamoto or Hiroya Shimamoto, deserve more of a shot on the big club. Wada loves his old grizzly veterans though, so it is unlikely he will rest Andoh or the even older (but more effective) Shinobu Fukuhara.

What do you all think of these suggestions made by sports writers? Keep in mind, none of us (and I include myself here) are former managers, so all our theories and ideas are probably rubbish to those who have played and managed the game before. Still, it’s fun to pontificate and theorize about different ideas, is it not? Comments always welcome, folks!

Series Recap – May 15-17, 2015

Many, including myself, wondered why the Tigers bothered signing a fifth foreigner back in March. After all, the Fab 4 did nothing but lead the league in at least one category each while staying healthy all year. What could go wrong in 2015? Well, on May 11, veteran ace Randy Messenger (league-worst 5.88 ERA) got sent down to the farm in a move that disappointed him and his family, and the newcomer from Puerto Rico would get a chance to play on the big stage. How would he fare? Would the Tigers continue their move up the standings? Could they keep the momentum going after a disastrous previous week? Let’s look at the games one by one.

“Super” Mario Santiago pitched 7 innings, giving up just one run on 7 hits, 3 walks. He struck out 5. Photo by Sponichi.

Game 1: Newcomer Mario Santiago made his debut for the parent club, and seemed to fit right in with other Tigers pitchers: put guys on base but hold strong. Through four innings, he had allowed 7 baserunners (one on an error) and never got the first batter out. He struck out the leadoff hitter in the fifth, but then gave up two hits and the Dragons took the lead. The Tigers could not get their bats, going, however. Santiago held the fort down through seven, and was lined up for the loss, when pinch hitter Ryota Arai again worked his magic, leading off the eighth with a single. Yamato pinch-ran, stole second, and crossed home on a Tsuyoshi Nishioka double. A few batters later with two men on base, Matt Murton delivered the go-ahead hit and suddenly, “Super Mario” had a chance at being the winning pitcher! Shinobu Fukuhara worked a clean eighth, and closer Seung-hwan Oh managed to hold off their assault in the ninth. He was also helped with a game-ending throw-out to second on the Dragons’ second failed stolen base attempt. Props to veteran catcher Kazunari Tsuruoka. Santiago wins! Final Score: Tigers 2, Dragons 1.

With no outs and a runner on first, manager Yutaka Wada brought in Shunsuke to

With no outs and a runner on first, manager Yutaka Wada brought in Shunsuke to “pinch bunt” the runner over the 2nd. The result: no run scored.

Game 2: Facing the league’s 3rd best pitcher, the Tigers’ bats would be hard-pressed to generate any offense in this one. They depended heavily on veteran lefty Atsushi Nohmi to keep it close. And he did. Through seven innings, he surrendered just six hits (two of which a better third baseman may have stopped) and limited the league’s best hitting order to just one run. Unfortunately for Nohmi, the bats were even less supportive of him than they were of Santiago one day earlier. A third inning single by Akihito Fujii and a fifth inning single by Murton was all that they got, if you don’t count the three walks and plunking they took. In the end, despite big chances in the eighth and ninth innings, the pinstripes were shut out and fell back out of third place. Final Score: Dragons 1, Tigers 0.

Suguru Iwazaki could not get things going in this one. He apologized for not being able to keep his team in the game after lasting just 4 innings.

Suguru Iwazaki could not get things going in this one. He apologized for not being able to keep his team in the game after lasting just 4 innings.

Game 3: Not a whole lot went the Tigers’ way in this one. Starter Suguru Iwazaki lasted just 4 innings as he walked the bases loaded without registering an out in the 4th, giving up three runs on a grounder and a single. Akira Iwamoto, who up to this point had been used as a starter, came in to relieve Iwazaki in the 5th, gave up another 3-spot on 4 hits and left without completing the inning. The consolation for our guys was that Mauro Gomez broke out of his recent funk with three hits, including a solo home run in the ninth. It was his first long ball in nearly a month and just his third of the year. Wada still found room to put a little blame on him, though, as he grounded into an inning-ending double play in the 3rd with runners on 1st and 3rd. Final Score: Dragons 6, Tigers 1.

Series Notes: For one brief day, the Tigers found themselves in 3rd place in the Central. That quickly disappeared though, as all three teams near them in the standings won on Sunday, and the team finds itself back in a tie for 4th, just a half game out of the cellar. They also face the red-hot Giants and Baystars this week so they’ll need to bring their A-game… Murton has now hit safely in 5 straight games since his benching on May 10. His average still sits at .242 but he is hitting with more authority than he was earlier in the year… The Tigers remain at the bottom of the league in batting average (.228), home runs (18) and steals (14). Their 3.92 ERA also ranks last in the Central… Outfielder Masahiro Nakatani was optioned back to the farm team. He made just three plate appearances while up with the big club, recording one hit… Since April 22, the Tigers lost 2, won 4, lost 3, won 2, lost 3, won 3, and lost 2. Here are the current standings in the Central:

15-5-17 Standings

Series Commentary: Santiago definitely made a case for staying up with the big club, but a conundrum presents itself: whom does the team deactivate? The current NPB rule allows for a maximum of four foreigners on the active roster at any given time. Messenger is on the farm but early indications were that he would be recalled after the minimum 10 days of deactivation. However, more recent news reports suggest that rookie Yuya Yokoyama will start on the 21st and Santiago will get the nod on the 22nd. This means Messenger’s stay on the farm will go at least 12 days. Meanwhile, Murton is just starting to heat up, Oh is the incumbent closer with no reason to be demoted, and Gomez, in spite of his struggles in May, is not really doing anything demotion-worthy at the plate. It will be interesting to see how the club handles this one.

I understand the importance of “one run” in these close games, but I completely disagree with Wada’s decision-making late in game 2. When the Tigers finally got the leadoff man on base in the eighth and ninth, Wada called for his second batter to bunt the leadoff man to second, essentially giving two of the final six outs away for free. I know the Tigers have a penchant for hitting grounders, some of which end in double plays, but when games are this close, you can’t give the opposition free outs! A recent “study” (in MLB, mind you) showed that outs are more precious than bases. In other words, you have a better chance of scoring with no outs and a runner on first than you do with one out and a runner on second. Still, with Hiroki Uemoto – the team’s “speedster” – on first, Wada not only elected to bunt him over, but brought in a pinch hitter to do so! The next pinch hitter, Kentaro Sekimoto, was plunked, and with one out and runners on first and second, a third pinch hitter, Keisuke Kanoh, grounded into a 6-4-3 double play. Inning over. The results were no better in the ninth, when Nishioka drew a walk and was bunted to second by our bunting pro, Yamato. Takashi Toritani struck out, Gomez walked, and again we had runners on first and second (but with two outs). Murton drove one deep to center field, but within range of their defense. Game over. Two outs wasted on bunts, and nothing to show for it. STOP CALLING FOR THE BUNT, PLEASE!

torihitthird

Team captain Takashi Toritani has a lower batting average (.234) than any non-catcher and non-pitcher in the lineup. In fact in this lineup, even the pitcher is hitting better than him! (Pssst! The pitcher actually has the best average on the starting nine on this night!)

I said it before and I’ll say it again. Toritani’s not pulling his weight. He is hitting just .143 with runners in scoring position on the season. They dropped Murton in the order when he was slumping, moved Uemoto all over the order (he’s hit first, second, sixth and seventh already this year), and benched Yamato for long periods. But Tori gets exemption from being moved? (He started the year as leadoff hitter but was moved not for his poor play, but Uemoto’s. Plus, he didn’t want to hit leadoff in the first place.) I believe it’s time to drop him down to seventh and really make this batting order better balanced. Here’s my suggestion. Your ideas are welcome in the comments.

1) Nishioka / 2) Yamato / 3) Murton / 4) Gomez / 5) Fukudome / 6) Uemoto / 7) Toritani / 8) Catcher / 9) Pitcher

Uemoto could be in second, with Yamato moving down to the lower half, but this order makes our lower half at least a little bit stronger (provided Tori starts hitting) and definitely more intimidating to opposing pitchers. It also gets a little bit of left/right/left/right that Wada likes so much, with batters 4-8 (and maybe even all the way to 1st) alternating back and forth.

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!

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.

Series Recap – April 10-12, 2015

Things just didn't go the Tigers' way on Saturday night. Messenger (right) catches the ball with his throwing hand as Uemoto and Nishioka look on.

Things just didn’t go the Tigers’ way on Saturday. Messenger (right) catches the ball with his throwing hand as Uemoto and Nishioka look on.

As the Tigers’ miserable start on home soil left fans drowning their sorrows, the heavens decided to give the team a break on Friday. Continuous rain all Friday caused the night game to be canceled (and rescheduled for September 11), and gave the Tigers another day to regroup and hopefully put an end to their 5-game losing streak.

15-4-Carp

Unfortunately the Carp rained on the Tigers’ parade on Saturday, getting the better of starter Randy Messenger, chasing him by scoring 4 straight runs before any outs were recorded in the sixth. Again the Tigers bats failed to produce much early or consistently, scoring on Kosuke Fukudome’s solo shot in the second and his RBI single in the sixth. Major league returnee Hiroki Kuroda pitched effectively enough to earn the win for the Carp, who extended their season-best streak to three. Final Score: Carp 7, Tigers 2.

For Sunday’s game, Wada decided to juggle his hitting order in a big way. Tsuyoshi Nishioka led off, Yamato was back up to second, Takashi Toritani hit third and Akihito Fujii made his first start at catcher, batting eighth. Birthday boy Shintaro Fujinami (21) took the mound against newcomer Kris Johnson, and for the first time since April 3, the Tigers found themselves leading as Fujinami hit a sacrifice fly and Nishioka brought another run home in the bottom half of the second. Unfortunately the offense sputtered after that, and Fujinami gave up a number of hits before leaving the game in the seventh, down 3-2. But wait! In the bottom of the 8th inning, pinch hitter Ryota Arai drew a walk, which was followed by a dramatic Toritani home run, putting the Tigers up by a run with just three outs to go. Closer Seung-hwan Oh gave up a lead-off hit, was given a courtesy out on a sacrifice bunt, then mowed down the next two Carp hitters. The losing streak was over at last! The game also featured many fine defensive plays, including outstanding outfield catches by Fukudome and Yamato. Final Score: Tigers 4, Carp 3.

The Tigers still have their work cut out for them, having only won one game this year by more than a single point. They have not looked convincingly strong at all this season, and the fans will not be satisfied with just this one win. They are still in the lower half of the standings and need to put together a strong winning streak against the Dragons next week in Nagoya.

15-4-12 Standings

Series Notes: By picking up the win on Sunday, reliever Ryoma Matsuda now has half of the team’s six wins. Chalk it up to being the right pitcher at the right time. Still, when is the last time a reliever has led the team in wins this deep into the season? Should continue for awhile, as no one else has more than a win so far. Messenger, Fujinami and Akira Iwamoto have the other W’s… The Tigers tied a club record on Saturday by losing their first four games of the season at Koshien. Saturday’s loss tied the 1999 squad for futility, a club that ended up in last place. Let’s hope these Tigers avoid doing the same… Minoru Iwata missed his turn in the rotation and will likely start the first or second game of the next series. With four left-handed starting pitchers currently, the Tigers are at a disadvantage against the bulk of the league, as right-handed hitters typically hit better against southpaws… With Toritani’s bomb in the eighth, the team now has 6 on the season so far. At this point last year they had double digits already. Look for Mauro Gomez and Matt Murton to bring their big bats into the next series.

Series Recap – April 7-9, 2015

Baystars1

Game 1: No runs until the 6th.

Baystars2

Game 2: No runs until the 5th.

Baystars3

Game 3: No runs until the 8th.

If you decided to attend one of the first games at Koshien but were worried about showing up late, you needn’t have worried. The Tigers also failed to show up early. Often they failed to show up late, too. In all three games of their opening series on their home turf, the Tigers produced zero runs through the first four innings. In fact, they only scored in three innings all series and nearly half of their runs scored came on one error. Obviously it was not a good series for the Tigers, as they dropped three straight against the up-and-coming DeNA Baystars. Since winning their first three of the season, the Tigers have gone 2-7 and no aspect of their game has looked promising during this slide.

15-4-Baystars

Game 1: Although starter Atsushi Nohmi was only on the hook for 1 of the 5 runs scored against him, he was tagged for six hits and walked one through two innings, which put the Tigers in an early hole. On the whole, the Tigers pitchers combined to give up 17 hits and 8 runs, with only Fukuhara pitching a clean inning. Relievers Kaneda, Shimamoto and Takamiya allowed the ‘Stars to extend their lead back to 5 runs. The Tigers scored their runs on a Kosuke Fukudome solo home run in the sixth, which was followed later by a mishandled Hiroki Uemoto grounder to shortstop. On the whole, the Tigers scattered 9 hits and walked six times, but could not bring enough runners home to make this one close. Final Score: Baystars 8, Tigers 3.

Game 2: After a hot spring and a great first start, young Akira Iwamoto‘s magic ended here, as he allowed consecutive runs in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth innings before leaving with the team deep in a hole. It was one they would never come close to digging themselves out of, as their lone run came in the bottom of the fifth. Mauro Gomez broke out of his long slump with an RBI double, and even added another double later in the game, but the rest of the team was silent around him. They all combined for two hits – a Takashi Toritani leadoff double in the first and a Matt Murton single in the third. They drew seven walks in this one, so it was not a lack of baserunners, but again a lack of clutch hitting. Once again, rookie reliever Tsuyoshi Ishizaki looked shaky, allowing 2 runs in 1 1/3 innings. Final Score: Baystars 6, Tigers 1.

Game 3: Second-year pitcher Suguru Iwazaki hoped to bounce back after a shaky outing in Tokyo against the Swallows, especially with his parents in attendance. And he did a great job, holding the ‘Stars scoreless through seven, and left in the eighth with one out and runners on first and third. Fukuhara gave up back-to-back hits and the Baystars took a 2-0 lead heading into the bottom of the inning. A Shunsuke walk and Tsuyoshi Nishioka double gave the Tigers a golden opportunity to come back, but a Gomez grounder gave the Tigers their lone run of the inning. Final Score: Baystars 2, Tigers 1.

Even the last-place Hiroshima Carp are looking scary as they come to Koshien for the next series. They took two of three from the Giants and sit a game behind the Tigers (and Giants) in the standings. Amazingly, the three playoff teams from last season sit in the last three spots so far this year.

15-4-9 Standings

Other Notes: Murton broke the club record for most games played by a foreigner on Thursday, playing in his 704th game. The record was previously held by Willie Kirkland (1968-1973). This marks the second straight year Murton has taken a key team record. Last year he surpassed Randy Bass on the career hits list with 744… The Tigers’ team ERA is currently worst in the Central League (4.25), as is their batting average (.221). Many other Tigers analysts place some of the blame for the former on catcher Ryutaro Umeno, as he tends to call a rather simple and predictable game for the pitchers to throw. Umeno has played in all but one inning so far this season… Through 12 games, the Tigers have scored just 4 runs in the first three innings (36 total) of their matches. This means opposing starting pitchers have a 1.00 ERA against them in the early innings.

Series Recap: March 31-April 2, 2015

Where's the relief? Tigers relievers (including Kuwahara, pictured above) have struggled early and often in 2015.

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.

15-3-Swallows

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.

Final Preseason Preview 2015

2015logoEarlier in the spring I took time to look at the Tigers’ players in a four-part series. Click on one of the links here to see them:

Infielders

Outfielders

Starting Pitchers

Relief Pitchers

Today we take one last look at the team as we head into the regular season. What are the team’s glaring weaknesses? What do we have to look forward to? Who’s going to have a good year? Who’s in danger of regressing or even not making the roster? Most importantly, can the Tigers win the Central League pennant? Fasten your seat belts, folks. The 2015 season is upon us!

Projected Starting Lineup/Batting Order:

 

1) Takashi Toritani (SS)

2) Hiroki Uemoto (2B)

3) Tsuyoshi Nishioka (3B)

4) Mauro Gomez (1B)

5) Matt Murton (LF)

6) Kosuke Fukudome (RF)

7) Ryutaro Umeno (C)

8) Yamato (CF)

9) Randy Messenger, etc. (P)

Osaka Castle given a 3D Mapping makeover.

Osaka Castle given a 3D Mapping makeover.

Hitters

Some of the hitters have looked good this spring, others have not. As a team they are hitting .251 where last season they combined for a .264 average. Keep in mind this spring they are using a designated hitter for all games, so the pitchers’ low average is not factored into the first number. This means they are hitting below last year’s level. At this point, Toritani, Uemoto, Fukudome and Murton are hitting extremely well, and Umeno is doing better than he did last season. On the other hand, Nishioka and Yamato are really struggling to make good connection and really need to step up their games before the regular season starts. Gomez has seen limited action so far, so it is harder to make an assessment of where he is at. However, he has made some good contact with the ball in two of the last three games the team has played. Let’s hope yesterday’s Golden Sombrero is an aberration.

It appears the batting order is more or less fixed for the time being, but Fukudome and Nishioka may be swapped out for one another depending on their performances and the opposing team’s pitcher. Manager Wada says he wants to see the team run more this season, and the order seems to reflect this on first glance. For one, they are not going with the Yamato bunt too high in the lineup, and probably will not make him sacrifice bunt too often, given that the pitcher will be hitting behind him. Secondly, they have players with decent speed interspersed throughout the lineup (1, 2, 3, 8 as I have it), which could lead to more stolen base attempts. Though Wada set the bar at 30 SB for Toritani, Uemoto and Yamato, I doubt any of those will reach that plateau. I’d like to see Uemoto get at least 25, Yamato 20 and Toritani 15, though. Murton says he’s up for 10, and some of their bench players (Egoshi, Tagami, etc.) might round the total up to 80 or 90. In any case, last year’s 55 is a terrible total and needs serious improvement.

On the whole the hitters have good eyes, and strike out at a fairly low rate while taking free passes quite often. All we can hope for here is that Gomez lays off the low and outside pitches a little more, and turns some of those strikeouts into walks. His batting average might take a little dip, but his on-base percentage could improve in 2015. Young catcher Umeno also could stand to be a little more disciplined at the plate, as he struck out 78 times versus just 10 walks (and 49 hits).

I expect the team’s leaders in each category will remain the same as last season, perhaps something like this:

AVG: Murton .331

HR: Gomez 33

BB: Toritani 92

RBI: Gomez 113

SB: Uemoto 27

R: Toritani 102

The Tigers cheering squad hanging out at Tsutenkaku in Osaka.

The Tigers cheering squad hanging out at Tsutenkaku in Osaka.

Pitchers

Most of the starters are locked in and have had great springs. Despite the hiccup in Friday’s exhibition game, Messenger has been outstanding. Were it not for the smile that is always on his face you might think he was getting a little bored with the other teams’ hitters. Minoru Iwata, Shintaro Fujinami and Atsushi Nohmi look about the same as last season, though Iwata’s numbers are a little higher. I don’t see any of these guys regressing from last year. In fact, I expect an even better season out of Fujinami, better run support for Iwata, a return to normal for Nohmi and better luck for Messenger. The other two spots in the rotation look to belong to Suguru Iwazaki and Akira Iwamoto for now, but the former may not make his debut until mid-April according to some sources. Perhaps Yuta Iwasada or Daiki Enokida will fill that role for a couple of turns, then become a long reliever the rest of the way.

The relief squad has a combination of experience and youth. Seung-hwan Oh is looking as good as ever in the closing position and could put up even better numbers than last year. Many eyes are on youngster Ryoma Matsuda to be the main set-up man, with veterans Shinobu Fukuhara and Yuya Andoh getting more rest and perhaps alternating in the seventh inning. Other long, mid- and situational relievers may include Enokida, Tsuyoshi Ishizaki, Kentaro Kuwahara, and Hiroya Shimamoto.

The relievers were a huge question mark heading into spring training, and still have not completely quelled that belief, but many enticing options have come up. The emergences of Iwamoto and Shimamoto, the steadiness of Kuwahara so far and Matsuda’s health mean that they are not the same bullpen they were last year. We do not yet know how they will fare in the regular season when the stakes are higher, but they have done well so far this spring.

Fringe players like Kazuya Takamiya, Kazuhito Futagami, Naoto Tsuru, Kazuya Tsutsui, Kazuyuki Kaneda and Ryo Watanabe may start the year in the Western League but remain available for call-up. Also, with a little more rehab and fine-tuning, first-round pick Yuya Yokoyama may get a call up to the parent club early in the year, either as a spot starter or a long reliever.

Despite Messenger’s dominance last season, I expect a slight shift in team leaders this campaign. Perhaps the end lines will look something like this:

Wins: Fujinami 15

ERA: Messenger 2.38

Strikeouts: Fujinami 201

Holds: Matsuda 33

Saves: Oh 41

Overall Prognosis

I still do not claim to know much about the other teams out there, or even about this club, but I predict the race for the Central League pennant will be a tight one between the Hiroshima Carp and our boys. Unfortunately, the realist in me sees the Carp as a stronger team that got a little unlucky last year. They also have a bit more young talent than our team, and should win the league by 2.5 games. The Giants, old as they are getting, will find a way to stay in the “A class” but will barely eke out the Yakult Swallows for 3rd, and the league will be rounded out by the emerging but not-yet-ready DeNA Baystars and the aging and hopeless Chunichi Dragons.

Will we see another headline like this later in 2015? Let's hope so!

Will we see another headline like this later in 2015? Let’s hope so!

Obviously I would love to be wrong, and hope to see the Tigers win their first pennant since 2005, and their first Nippon Series since 1985. Let’s see what happens as the season progresses. What are your predictions, everyone? Feel free to write them in the comments section – either for individual players, the team as a whole, or anything else. GO TIGERS!