Series Recap – July 10-12, 2015

夢はつぶれる、未来はつぶれる ぼくとわたしの大きな夢は いつもの負けで いつもの阪神… 阪神!

Yume wa tsubureru, mirai wa tsubureru   Boku to watashi no o-kina yume wa  Itsumo no make de, itsumo no Hanshin… HANSHIN!

(My dreams have been squashed, my future is squashed. Your big dreams and mine, always losers, always Hanshin… HANSHIN!)

Coming into this series, the boys were rocking a 3-6 record since June 30 and were riding a 4-game losing streak at Tokyo Dome. Let’s look quickly at how this series against the hated Giants went down.

“We might actually come back and win this one!”
“Nah, you’re just pulling my leg aren’t you?”

Game 1: The game started off well enough, with Kosuke Fukudome brought Shunsuke home on a sacrifice fly in the first, giving starter Randy Messenger a one-run lead before he threw a single pitch. Unfortunately that lead disappeared in the second with the Giants putting up a two-spot, and the lead further increased with two more runs in the sixth. Messenger ended the night giving up six hits, six walks and striking out five in six innings of work. The Tigers scored one more in the seventh on a Kentaro Sekimoto grounder. No RBI hits in this game for the Tigers. Final Score: Giants 4, Tigers 2.

Fujinami couldn't get his leg up on the competition in this one. A rare bad outing from the team's

Fujinami couldn’t get his leg up on the competition in this one. A rare bad outing from the team’s “future ace.”

Game 2: This team just has a knack for losing by huge margins. Starter Shintaro Fujinami followed yesterday’s 8-walk game with 7 (if you count hit batsmen) of his own in 5 2/3 innings, as he gave up a season-worst 7 runs and struck out five. He allowed 14 guys to reach base, and Ryoma Matsuda got tagged badly as well, resulting in a brutal loss yet again. The lone bright spot was Fukudome’s solo blast to deep right in the 4th inning when the game was still close. Matt Murton‘s sacrifice fly RBI in the sixth gave the team a little hope, but that was dashed in the bottom of the inning. Final Damage: Giants 11, Tigers 2.

How this guy's got that much spring in his legs, I have no idea. Fukudome lays out to make a key out in the ninth inning.

How this guy’s got that much spring in his legs, I have no idea. Fukudome lays out to make a key out in the ninth inning.

Game 3: To avoid the sweep, Minoru Iwata would have to be at his best, as the Giants brought their ace (Tomoyuki Sugano) to the mound. Our lefty was going on 4 days’ rest for the first time all year, and while he pitched well against the Dragons on Tuesday, he was pretty awful in his three starts before that. But he held in strong against the surging Evil Empire, allowing just 1 run in five innings. For their part, the Tigers got on the scoreboard first in this one, with Fukudome recording an RBI in his third straight. The game remained tied until the eighth, when the visitors got the better of Canadian reliever Scott Mathieson. A Murton double was followed by four straight hits/walks, then a sacrifice fly. Another 9th inning home run allowed by closer Seung-hwan Oh put everyone on the edge of their seats to end this one, but the Tigers held on. Final Score: Tigers 4, Giants 2.

Here are the standings after all the action on Sunday.

15-7-12 Standings

The Tigers have just two more games before the All-Star Game: a two-game home stand against the Carp. I’ll be at one of them and look forward to the team being over .500 heading into the break. GO TIGERS!

Series Recap – July 3-5, 2015

I got a phone call on Saturday morning from Tigers legend Gene Bacque. The day after the team played in its 10,000th regular season game, he wanted to tell me that he was the pitcher in the team’s 3000th ever game. It was August 15, 1963 (3 days after his 26th birthday) and the team beat the Kokutetsu Swallows 4-2 in Tokyo. The team again put a foreigner on the mound for its memorial game on Friday night, this time in Yokohama against the DeNA Baystars. Riding a 3 game losing streak, could Randy Messenger lead them out of the mini-slump?

Oh NO! Our closer got roughed up yet again on Friday night.

Oh NO! Our closer got roughed up yet again on Friday night.

Game 1: For eight innings, he did just that. Messenger pitched brilliantly, allowing just 5 hits and one unearned run, striking out a dozen guys while walking just two. He left the game after 142 pitches and a 3-1 lead, thanks to a 2-run single by Yamato and a solo home run by Takashi Toritani. The Baystars pressed, especially in the eighth (when the lone run scored after Toritani’s errant throw to first allowed a 1-out runner to advance to second. The inning would have ended before Tsutsugoh’s RBI double were it not for the error. Still, with a 3-1 lead and closer Seung-hwan Oh entering the game, fans were confident that victory was ours. Guess again. Oh gave up a single, then a 2-run home run, then another single, a sacrifice bunt and a walk-off double. Tigers fans and players left the stadium in shock as the 10,000th game in team history ended about as poorly as even the most pessimistic followers could imagine. Final Score: Baystars 4, Tigers 3.

The man's bat just won't stop crushing balls. Baystars pitchers got a double dose of Fukudome's resurgence on Saturday.

The man’s bat just won’t stop crushing balls. Baystars pitchers got a double dose of Fukudome’s resurgence on Saturday.

Game 2: The last time Oh had blown a save, the team took the field the next game and staked their starter a 8-0 lead. (We won’t mention what happened next.) Hiroki Uemoto made it look like they would do the same on this day, his 29th birthday. He took the first pitch to deep left, giving the team a 1-0 lead (GIF here). It stayed that way until the 4th, when Kosuke Fukudome continued his hot season with a solo jack of his own. Toritani bumped the lead even higher in the 5th with an RBI single through the right side of the infield. Just before starter Shoya Yamamoto left the game after 5 innings, the Baystars managed a 2-spot, but he still left with the lead. Before any other Tigers pitcher could take the mound, though, Fukudome struck again, extending the team’s lead to 6-2 with a 3-run blast. However, with the Tigers’ relief squad, 4 runs is not always enough. The ‘Stars scratched and clawed their way back into this one with two in the sixth (off Ryoma Matsuda) and one in the eighth (Shinobu Fukuhara). Matt Murton brought the lead back up to 2 with an RBI double in the top of the last frame, and it’s a good thing he did, as Oh gave up a solo shot in the ninth (to the same guy who got him on Friday). Fortunately, the comeback ended there. The losing streak was over at last! Final Score: Tigers 7, Baystars 6.

With his bat, too! Shintaro has RBIs in two straight starts now. His double in the second inning opened the scoring in this one.

With his bat, too! Shintaro has RBIs in two straight starts now. His double in the second inning opened the scoring in this one.

Game 3: “Sunday Shin-chan” (Shintaro Fujinami) was looking for his sixth straight victory of the year and seventh overall, and he played like he wanted it. Not only did he strike out a dozen in eight innings of work, but he also got the team’s first RBI in the second inning. The whole team contributed in this one. Mauro Gomez hit a monster shot to left in the third (GIF here), Uemoto cleared the bases in the sixth, Murton brought Gomez home in the seventh and Toritani scored Murton as well, and then Fukudome brought another run home (though it was called an error, so no hit or RBI for him today) in the eighth. Kazuya Tsutsui made his season debut, striking out the side to cap the game off in style. Final Score: Tigers 8, Baystars 1.

History was made on Friday night, as every team in the Central League was below .500 for the first time ever. This was made possible by their annihilation at the hands of the Pacific League during interleague play. Any way you look at it, the Central will finish the year with a combined 17 game below .500 mark. On Friday, the top 5 teams combined for 8 of those, and the last-place Dragons had the other 9. The Tigers find themselves back in first at the end of the week, thanks to a Giants tie and the Carp taking care of the first-place Swallows (who are now in 4th). The Baystars are a season-worst 4 games below the surface. Here are the current CL standings. See how the PL looks here.

15-7-5 Standings

The Tigers open the upcoming week with a game in Okayama on Tuesday against the Dragons, then two at Koshien to finish the series. They travel back to Tokyo to end the week against their rivals, the Yomiuri Giants. GO TIGERS!

Mini-Series Recap – June 23-24, 2015

The Tigers played their second of two 2-game sets to open up the post-interleague schedule. This time, they traveled to the “Hokuriku” region to play a couple of true road games: the first in Nagano, the second in Toyama. With just 0.5 games separating them from the Giants for the league lead, but also with a mere 3 game lead on the last place team, they needed to continue their strong play before coming home for a three-game series on the weekend. It was a wild mini-series, so fasten your seatbelt and join me as we go over the action.

Gomez got all of this pitch, and everyone knew the instant it left his bat that we were 20 seconds from celebrating with Imanari. Komanechi!

Gomez got all of this pitch, and everyone knew the instant it left his bat that we were 20 seconds from celebrating with Imanari. Komanechi!

Game 1: Though rain threatened to drown this one out, this one was played in full. Including a 33-minute rain delay, the game went all the way into the dark hours of the night, as each team took leads, lost leads, tied the game, and repeated the process all over again. The Tigers drew first blood on a Ryota Imanari solo shot (his first of the year) in the second. The rains chased players from the field and when the game resumed, it was the Carp who responded to the soggy conditions much better than the Tigers. In fact, they chased starter Minoru Iwata after just four innings of work, taking a 3-1 lead into the fifth. That was when the Tigers roared back against ex-MLB pitcher Hiroki Kuroda. Kohei Shibata took a two-out pitch to right-center, cashing in Imanari and Takashi Toritani, tying the game at 3. The score remained knotted through Ryoma Matsuda‘s two innings of relief, but then took a turn for the worst when Yuya Andoh came in and fell apart in the seventh. Two hits were followed by a wild pitch, and the winning run crossed the plate for the fish. However, the game was not over yet. With runners on first and third, Mauro Gomez took the first pitch he saw to deeeeeep left, reversing the teams’ fortunes and putting the Tigers up 2 with just six outs to go. With Shinobu Fukuhara and Seung-hwan Oh due up to pitch those innings, this one was over, right? Think again. Once again, the ex-Arai came back to bite the Tigers, hitting a solo shot to left and narrowing the lead to one. Still, our closer only had to shut down their 8th, 9th and 1st hitters to end the game. No problem, right? Think again, again! A walk, a hit batsman, and a hit later, the game was tied. Runners were on second and third with no outs. All the Carp needed was a hit, a deep fly or a squeeze play, and they had three chances to do it. But a sharp grounder, a shallow fly and a strikeout later, this one was headed to extras. Nothing was decided in three frames, despite chances on both sides, and youngster Hiroaki Saiuchi pitched 2 2/3 innings of shutout ball to help the Tigers preserve the tie. With the Giants’ loss, this put them in a tie for first, but it also meant that for the first time in Central League history, no team had a winning record after sixty-plus games. Final Score: Tigers 6, Carp 6.

Nohmi

Nohmi “helped his own cause” by driving in two runs in the fourth, giving his team a huge lead.

Game 2: If both the Tigers and Giants lost here, every CL team would be UNDER .500 for the first time in history. But this one was never in question. Kosuke Fukudome knocked in Toritani in the first, and then the offense padded their lead nicely in the 4th with an Imanari double (2 RBI) followed by an Atsushi Nohmi single (2 more), making the score 5-0. Matt Murton also smashed one to left in the fifth (see it here), his second home run in 4 games, and despite a couple runs along the way by the Carp, the Tigers cruised to victory in fashion. Gomez added an insurance run late, and yesterday’s goats (Fukuhara and Oh) pitched strongly in the last two frames. The Tigers were once again over .500, and awaited the Giants result to see where they would sit in the standings. Final Score: Tigers 7, Carp 2.

The team finds itself in sole possession of first (by a game) after the Giants were toppled for the second straight night. The Baystars have won 2 straight after dropping 12 in a row. These are the most recent standings in the Central:

15-6-24 Standings

The Tigers host the DeNA Baystars for three at Koshien this weekend and will finish the month of June with their first of three straight at Jingu Stadium to face the Swallows. Let’s hope they can keep this little hot streak going to end the month strong. Go TIGERS!

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 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

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.

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.

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!