Series Recap: July 31-August 2, 2015

ultra2015The wild Central League is starting to separate itself a little bit. Ten short days ago, Just two games separated first from fifth, and no team was over the .500 mark. But the collapses of the Chunichi Dragons and DeNA Baystars, along with the continued mediocre play of the Hiroshima Carp has turned thing (at least for this week) into a 3-team race. So the Giants had the easy bill against the Dragons, while the Tigers and Swallows duked it out at Koshien Stadium for 3 days in the midst of the summer heat. Would this one live up to its billing as a fight for the top?

Matt Murton celebrates from the dugout as Ryota Arai rounds first base after his 4th inning blast to center.

Matt Murton celebrates from the dugout as Ryota Arai rounds first base after his 4th inning blast to center.

Game 1: The answer: 47. Quick, what’s the question? Nice try – it is the number of prefectures in Japan, but in this case we’re talking about the number of pitches thrown by ace Shintaro Fujinami in the first inning of Friday night’s game. He seemed to be laboring to get pitches over the plate, walking two before recording an out, and eventually giving up 4 runs before the Tigers bats even got their turn. He repeated his problems again in the fourth and was pulled with the score 1-6 for the visitors. Fortunately, the team brought their offense and grittiness to the park on this evening. Despite a few close strike calls (on 3-0 and 3-1 counts), Matt Murton got all of Yoshihisa Naruse’s full count offering (video clip here), and the lead was down to three. But wait! One Ryota Arai swing later, the lead was down to two! Perhaps fearing the pandemonium of giving up 3 straight bombs, Naruse walked Taiga Egoshi, who got bunted (what?) over to second before a Swallows error scored him. The deficit was down to one. The Swallows got one back in the next inning, as Kazuya Takamiya displayed all the control of today’s ace starter. But a bases loaded single by Kosuke Fukudome in the sixth inning tied the affair at 7. Then in the eighth, Mauro Gomez took a pitch on the hands to score a bases-loaded HBP run, and Murton knocked in two insurance runs immediately after, giving the home team a nice 3-run cushion. No exciting game at Koshien is complete without the requisite dramatics of closer Seung-hwan Oh, who gave up consecutive two-out doubles, then walked another before closing the door. Final Score: Tigers 10, Swallows 8.

Fujii stares up at Messenger in wonder, trying to figure out how the big man deals with the lack of run support.

Game 2: Unfortunately for the Tigers, starter Randy Messenger did not fare much better in the first inning than Fujinami did the day before. He allowed three singles and gave up a run on a sacrifice fly. He would later serve up a 2-run home run in the third inning, but held on until the end of the seventh without giving any more runs away. For their part, the offense was rather silent, scoring just a single run in the bottom of the third on a Gomez RBI single. Beyond the fifth inning, they got just one man on base – Ryota Imanari, who contributed two of the team’s six singles on the night. Despite being quite a drawn-out affair, this one lacked all the drama that Friday’s game provided. Final Score: Swallows 4, Tigers 1.

Sunday night's game had some fans climbing the walls in frustration.

Sunday night’s game had some fans climbing the walls in frustration.

Game 3: The team brought in struggling sophomore Suguru Iwazaki for another start as they hoped to close off their Ultra Summer with a win. The young southpaw had a tendency to start strong but not get through his final inning of work, and the same thing happened tonight, though much later than usual. He allowed just two hits in his first six innings of work before giving up two runs vs. one out in the seventh. The relievers poured lemon juice on the open wound, and the bats once again failed to do any whacking. The Tigers would hit the road riding a two game losing streak. Final Score: Swallows 5, Tigers 0.

Series Notes: Egoshi went 0-for-12 in this series with a walk and five strikeouts. He hit a few balls well, but some of the shimmer has worn off since his big showings in the previous three series… Murton became the first of the big three to break his homerless drought. Fukudome (14 games) and Gomez (16 games) are both mired in long power slumps that will hopefully end soon… Takamiya got optioned down to the farm after his poor showing on Friday, and Shoya Yamamoto got recalled. Catcher Shinji Komiyama made his first start of the year on Sunday, pairing with Iwazaki.

Here are the standings after play on Sunday night:

15-8-2 Standings

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.