Mini-Series Recap – July 28-29, 2015

With the Road Trip of Death looming and a quick series in Nagoya on tap, the Tigers needed to sneak in a couple of road wins before coming home for one last Koshien Ultra Summer series. They were facing the last place Chunichi Dragons with just one problem: a history of losing at Nagoya Dome. Could they come home 3 games over .500? Let’s look at the games one by one.

Rare for a mid-reliever to get "Hero of the Night" but Andoh was clutch on Tuesday night.

Rare for a mid-reliever to get “Hero of the Night” but Andoh was clutch on Tuesday night.

Game 1: This one started poorly for the Tigers, both at the dish and in the field. They failed to put anyone on base in the first two innings, and starter Minoru Iwata surrendered a two-run home run in the bottom of the second. However, the floodgates opened in a huge way for the visitors in the top of the third. Taiga Egoshi walked, and five hits later (RBIs by Hiroki Uemoto, Kosuke Fukudome and two by Matt Murton) he was back at the plate again, and this time he knocked in two more runs. A two run deficit became a four run lead in just an inning. However, after a few calm innings, Iwata struggled again in the fifth and sixth, giving up a run in each frame and not completing the sixth. He left with the bases loaded and two outs. Fortunately, reliever Yuya Andoh managed to strike out their batter, getting out of that inning and then holding fort in the seventh as well. For the Tigers’ bats’ part, they did not record another hit the rest of the way – but their six run explosion held up as the “winning combo” relievers – Shinobu Fukuhara and Seung-hwan Oh – pitched clean innings to preserve the win. Final Score: Tigers 6, Dragons 4.

No Tigers fan is tired of seeing this: Taiga the Tiger hitting the long ball once again on Wednesday!

No Tigers fan is tired of seeing this: Taiga the Tiger hitting the long ball once again on Wednesday!

Game 2: Each pitcher surrendered a lead off hit in the first, but neither team scored. The Tigers opened the scoring in the third as Uemoto grounded out to second but broke up a double play, scoring Kazunari Tsuruoka from third. For his part, starter Atsushi Nohmi threw three great innings, but unraveled in the fourth. A leadoff double was followed by an infield single. With runners in the corners he induced a pop foul to third, giving hope for a scoreless fourth, but threw his next pitch wild, scoring a run. One out later (would have been an inning ending double play were it not for the WP), an RBI single gave the Dragons a 2-1 lead. Things stayed fairly calm in the middle innings, but the rookie of the week(s), Egoshi, hit a solo blast in the top of the 7th to tie the game at 2. Taiga the Tiger wasn’t done there, though. Murton drew a leadoff walk in the ninth, and two batters later, Egoshi hit a first-pitch double to left center, giving the Tigers the lead once again. Oh took the mound in the ninth for the second straight night, earning another save while allowing a two-out single. Final Score: Tigers 3, Swallows 2.

Series Notes: Mauro Gomez’s 16-game hitting streak ended on Tuesday as the slugger went 0-4. He followed it up with another hitless (0-3, HBP) night on Wednesday… Egoshi has started seven straight games now and appears to have won the center field position, at least for now. His average is still well below the Mendoza Line, but he has a lot of multi-base hits in his limited playing time so far this year. The team needs more “power hitting” so his low average can be swallowed a lot more easily because he makes his hits count… Iwata’s win on Tuesday was his first since the last game of interleague play, when he threw 140 pitches to beat the Nippon Ham Fighters… A few key moves in the seventh may have cost the Tigers a run or two. Cold-hitting Ryota Arai was left in against a right-handed pitcher instead of bringing in Ryota Imanari. A runner on for Egoshi would have meant a lead for the Tigers. Then with two outs, instead of pinch-hitting for Nohmi, they took an easy third out, leaving him in for the bottom of the inning. Perhaps Wada thought he would need his pinch hitters later in the game, but then he subbed Arai out for Imanari on defense in the seventh anyways… Tigers have Thursday off but the other Central League teams play, so standings will be updated after those games. Check here for full standings. (For now, they remain tied for first with the Swallows, three games above .500.)

Series Recap – July 20-22, 2015

For the Central League, the All-Star Break may as well have been the offseason, and the remaining games a full season. The gap between all the teams was a mere 5 games (including 4 teams within a single game of first). To make things even more spring-like, no team was above .500! With fewer than 60 games left on tap, the importance of each matchup has become that much greater. The Tigers spend 9 of their first 11 games at Koshien Stadium before taking their annual “Road Trip of Death” in August while the high school national tournament is played on their home turf. The first series was against their longtime rivals, the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants.

Murton made a fine play in left field, butt... at the plate he was unable to capitalize on two big chances.

Murton made a fine play in left field, butt… at the plate he was unable to capitalize on two big chances.

Game 1: Facing Miles Mikolas for the second time this month, the team hoped to have more success than last time, when they fell 4-2. This time the ball was in the hands of Minoru Iwata, and he kept the game close for six innings, allowing just one run. That came after a booted grounder by third baseman Ryota Imanari (no error was charged to him on the play) in the first. Unfortunately for the Tigers, the Giants’ American import brought his A game and the team once again failed to give their pitcher any run support. In the ninth on a pop foul to first, Mauro Gomez dropped the ball (this one was called an error) and the Giants batter took full advantage of the second chance given to him, driving a Kazuya Takamiya slider over the right center wall. Final Score: Giants 2, Tigers 0.

The Americans delivered big-time on Tuesday: 8 shutout innings from Messenger and 2 RBIs from Murton.

The Americans delivered big-time on Tuesday: 8 shutout innings from Messenger and 2 RBIs from Murton.

Game 2: As the victim of poor run support in three straight July starts, Randy Messenger did what he needed to do to make sure he didn’t need much in this one. The rejuvenated righty hung in for 8 innings, avoiding a dangerous situation in the opening frame and shutting the Giants down completely on 129 pitches. As for the bats, they took their time warming up. It wasn’t until the sixth inning with two outs that the 25-inning scoreless drought ended. Matt Murton high a towering shot to left that was not far from either clearing the fence or landing in the fielder’s outstretched glove. It did neither, but cashed in two runners instead. The game got a little dramatic when Seung-hwan Oh came in to close things down. He surrendered a hit, allowed a stolen base, then gave up another hit, and a run scored. With one out to go, the winning run came to the plate. Fortunately, it was not the Giants’ day, and Messenger was able to pick up his first win since the game after Interleague play ended. Final Score: Tigers 2, Giants 1.

It wasn't the deepest hit of the night but it certainly was the most important. Ryota cleared the bases in the opening inning.

It wasn’t the deepest hit of the night but it certainly was the most important. Ryota cleared the bases in the opening inning.

Game 3: Atsushi Nohmi looked great right out of the gates in this one, needing just 23 pitches to get the first 8 outs. Then a “hit” (should have been an error to Takashi Toritani) caused him to labor the next three innings, but he managed to hold the Giants to just a single run in his six innings of work. For their part, the Tigers got on the board in the first, thanks to a Ryota Arai bases-clearing double. Rookie outfielder Taiga Egoshi extended the lead back to three runs in the sixth with a solo home run, his second on the year. Reliever Yuya Andoh allowed a solo home run in the seventh to bring the lead back down to two. Oh closed the game off with a rare clean inning. Final Score: Tigers 4, Giants 2.

Series Notes: Egoshi got recalled and started the last two games of the series, going 0-3 with 2 strikeouts Tuesday and 2-4 Wednesday. He is still hitting just .122 (6-49) on the year in his limited action. However, of his six hits, two have been home runs and one was a triple that was just centimeters from being another homer… Toritani continues to struggle in the field, collecting his 7th error of the year on Tuesday, failing to catch a first inning infield pop-up. He had just 5 errors all of last season… This was the second series of the year that the Tigers took from the Giants. The other came just before interleague play began, and was also played at Koshien. On the year, they are still just 7-10 against their nemeses. Here are the standings as of the end of play on Wednesday:

15-7-22 Standings

ASB – Report Card Time! Part 2

Yesterday we took a look at how the Hanshin Tigers did in the field and at the plate. Today we look back at how the hurlers have performed to date. I will look at the steady starters one by one, then the spot starters as a whole, the relievers as a whole with special focus on the back end of the bullpen. Here… we… go!

"Sunday Shin-chan" has come to the rescue many times this year.

“Sunday Shin-chan” has come to the rescue many times this year.

Shintaro Fujinami: I don’t think any pitcher in baseball has as many unearned runs as our young phenom. That can mean a few things: 1) the spin on his pitches make hit balls bounce funny, resulting in errors; 2) the team plays a little more nervously behind him; 3) the score keepers are generous with him, charging more errors to the fielders than usual; 4) he has problems putting errors behind him and getting the final outs of innings. I tend to believe the latter two to be true. Still, this guy is something else to watch pitch. His rough April (1 win, 3.66 ERA) was quickly forgotten as he got really hot in May (0.88 ERA) and played quite well in June (2.70) as well. The kid also won MVP honors at Game 1 of the All-Star matches, and has been named to nearly every national team in the past year. The present is quite bright, but the future could be even brighter. Overall Grade: A-

Minoru Iwata: Long known as the pitcher who can’t buy run support, Iwata’s adventures continued this year. He has been quite consistent so far, keeping his ERA in the low 3’s much of the season. While he only had one outing that could be called “dominant” he also has not thrown any absolute stinkers, either. He flirted with a perfect game in April but it all unraveled in the 7th and he didn’t even earn the victory. Still, he has a decent shot at his first double-digit win season since 2008. Let’s hope the team can show this steady #3 pitcher some love the rest of the way. Overall Grade: B-

Messenger has been the team's best pitcher since rejoining the team on May 29.

Messenger has been the team’s best pitcher since rejoining the team on May 29.

Randy Messenger: The season could not have started much worse for the big workhorse from Nevada. By May 10, his ERA was 5.88 – worst in the Central League – and he got suddenly demoted to the farm for most of the rest of the month. Upon his return, though, he has been lights out: a June ERA of 0.87 and his July ERA sits at 2.25 so far. Talk about regaining ace status! Look for more of the same from the big man the rest of the way. He seems to have found his groove. The team will need his best if it hopes to contend. They could stand to give him a little more run support, too, mind you. Overall Grade: B-

Atsushi Nohmi: Many worried about our ace of years past after a shaky 2014. He came to camp and worked harder than anyone, throwing more bullpens than the team expected. It looked as though it would pay off, as he started the new season very strongly. Through April 30, his ERA was an ace-like 2.08. But since then it has steadily risen (4.19 in May, 4.50 in June and an unsightly 5.40 so far in July). It might be fatigue, or it might be age. Either way, the team needs to use him a little more strategically the rest of the way. Perhaps more rest, perhaps shorter starts. But they cannot expect him to do what he has done in the past. Overall Grade: C-

The Spot Starters: Includes Akira Iwamoto, Suguru Iwazaki, Mario Santiago, Yuya Yokoyama, Yuta Iwasada, Shoya Yamamoto, Takumi Akiyama. Many of these guys put together great first starts, but either fizzled out or never got a second look. None really looks ready to take the 5th (or 6th) spot in the rotation just yet, but someone’s got to fill in the rest of the way. Who will it be? I personally hope Iwazaki can find his touch again, and perhaps Iwasada or Yamamoto could round it out. Without consistency from the back end of the rotation, though, it’s going to be a rough second half. Overall Grade: C

Uh-Oh? Oh No? Oh boy? We want "Oh Yeah" the rest of the way!

Uh-Oh? Oh No? Oh boy? We want “Oh Yeah” the rest of the way!

Seung-hwan Oh: Fans of the team are familiar with the drama that this Korean brings to the mound in close games. His season actually started quite poorly. Despite giving up just one run, he allowed more base runners than usual, causing fans to tighten their grips on remote controls and smartphones. He settled in quite nicely through May, and had one major meltdown in early June. July, though, has been a very ugly month. Through six outings, his ERA on the month is 8.53, and he has given up three home runs in that span. His job appears secure, if only because there is not one else on the squad who could take his place. However, I expect more consistency from someone who is a closer. His good times are great, but his bad times have been occurring too frequently. Overall Grade: C

Shinobu Fukuhara: Used almost exclusively as a set-up man (8th inning before handing the reins to Oh), the 38-year old has been incredible this season. Until recently his ERA was under one, but has now risen to 1.67 after a rough July. I personally believe he needs more rest, and perhaps overuse (36 appearances already) will render him less effective the rest of the way. Still, there’s a reason he was named co-MVP of the first half by manager Wada. Overall Grade: A

Andoh has been great at times, awful at others this year.

Andoh has been great at times, awful at others this year.

The Rest of the ‘Pen: Includes Yuya Andoh (3.72), Ryoma Matsuda (5.52), Kazuya Takamiya (3.38), Hiroya Shimamoto (9.35), Kazuyuki Kaneda (5.19), Daiki Enokida (10.38), Kentaro Kuwahara (8.53), Tsuyoshi Ishizaki (11.05), Hiroaki Saiuchi (2.89), Tatsuya Kojima (7.00), Kazuya Tsutsui (0.00), Naoto Tsuru (3.38), more. Awful. Inconsistent. They make close games blowouts, and are the cause of many a changed channel in this home and probably many more across the nation. As bad as the bats have been this year, the bullpen might be even worse. The ERAs of these guys would give the best Indian mathematicians headaches. Only Takamiya, Saiuchi and Tsutsui have been somewhat decent; the latter two have only played in the past month or so. Overall Grade: F

Aggregate Arms: The bats are pretty lean, but the pitchers aren’t really doing their part, either. Team ERA (3.89) is second worst in NPB (only better than the Chiba Lotte Marines), and the number of huge blowout losses is disheartening. Some hurlers are doing their part to keep the team in games, but it seems like whenever Randy or Iwata or another pitcher holds the other team to 2 or fewer runs, we still end up on the losing end more often than not. In that area, we cannot fault the pitchers. However, the number of times I have seen pitchers say “I wasn’t able to give my team a chance to win. I’m sorry” is uncountable. Overall Grade: D

Mini-Series Recap – July 14 & 15, 2015

Manager Wada's magic number 86 has come up. The team's runs for/against differential sits at -86 on the season.

Manager Wada’s magic number 86 has come up. The team’s runs for/against differential sits at -86 on the season.

Two losses and a win, two losses and a win. What comes next in this pattern? If two losses, then there would be no time for a win – the team had just two games remaining before the all-star break. That being the case, they started two of their core pitchers on short rest at home against the Hiroshima Carp. Could they pull their way over the .500 mark before the weekend of rest?

The guys were all smiles on Tuesday. Nohmi pitched well for 7, Uemoto and Toritani got RBIs, and Imanari... was happy, too.

The guys were all smiles on Tuesday. Nohmi pitched well for 7, Uemoto and Toritani got RBIs, and Imanari… was happy, too.

Game 1: They certainly started this one right: Kosuke Fukudome, Mauro Gomez and Matt Murton collected two-out hits, the last one resulting in the first run of the game. The rebounding redhead struck again in the third inning with a run-scoring sacrifice fly, and the Tigers broke open a 2-0 lead. Starter Atsushi Nohmi had the game under control as well, pitching solidly in his 7 innings (6 hits, 1 unearned run) of work. The Tigers took full control with runs in the 5th (Hiroki Uemoto 2-run double, Takashi Toritani RBI single), and despite a run surrendered by Shinobu Fukuhara (someone give this old man some rest!) the outcome was never in question. Back to .500! Final Score: Tigers 5, Carp 2.

Randy Messenger steps up to the plate as the sun sets at Koshien on Wednesday night.

 
Game 2: This one looked bad from the onset, though having Randy Messenger on the mound means you will always have a chance to win. He pitched a strong game, going six innings and giving up a single run on 4 hits. For their part, the Tigers brought up perhaps their least intimidating lineup of the season. Shunsuke in center (mind you, who else will step up there?) batting second, and Katsuhiko Saka starting at third base. Yes, Ryota Imanari has been struggling mightily. But why not Ryota Arai? Oh right, the whole righty-vs-lefty “advantage” Wada loves to “exploit.” So let’s bring in a .154 lefty with no pop instead of our righty who actually can hit a ball with some authority! The results were predictable. No offense to the offense, but they were offensive. Lots of base runners, mind you – two guys got plunked (yep, the two I chose to diss for being in the starting lineup) and six took first on balls. But despite several chances with runners in scoring position, the team could not muster a single run. In the bottom of the sixth, the 7th, 8th and 9th batters were due up. Would they pull Messenger for a pinch hitter? “No chance,” I said to my buddy, trying to sound like I knew baseball better than anyone else, “Even if there’s a guy in scoring position and they bring in a pinch hitter and score a run, they would have to depend on the bullpen to hold down the fort for 3 innings afterwards, and we all know that never happens. And if the first two guys get out, I can guarantee they’ll let Randy hit and then pitch at least the 7th, maybe even the 8th.” I’m not Wada though, and I don’t call the shots. Two outs into the inning, they pulled the big righty in favor of the hitless Yuto Morikoshi. He flied out to center and we were left to ask our bullpen to keep it close. They couldn’t. Recently recalled Kosuke Katoh walked a guy who got bunted over to second, and Yuya Andoh proceeded to give up a single on his third pitch. Now 2-0. The Carp added one more in the ninth off birthday boy Seung-hwan Oh for good measure, and the game ended without a sound from the Tigers’ fans. Final Score: Carp 3, Tigers 0.

Someone looks a little too happy about beating his old teammates.

Someone looks a little too happy about beating his old teammates.

Series Notes: Gomez now has an 11-game hitting streak, while Murton’s 9-game run ended in Wednesday’s loss… Oh has thrown just one scoreless frame in his last 4 outings, and has not thrown a clean inning since June 27. Perhaps it’s time for my proposal to be given a look!… Messenger is now winless since taking the first game after league play resumed on June 20, despite giving up 2, 1, 4 and 1 earned runs in his starts. This lack of run support is killing the starters, who have to be feeling pressure to completely shut out the opposition… The Tigers are tied for second at present, just a half game behind the DeNA Baystars, who swept the Giants to take over first. Our guys start the second half with six straight at home against these two teams, and the rest of the season could depend largely on how they fare coming out of the gates. I will be in attendance next Friday and hope to see a win for a change! (I’m 1-3 so far this season.) No standings graphic here, but check here for updated CL and PL rankings.

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 – July 7-9, 2015

Most signs pointed to the Tigers having a good series this week. They were riding a 6-game winning streak at Muskat Stadium (Kurashiki, Okayama, where Tuesday’s game was held) and a 9-game winning streak at Koshien (where they played Wednesday and Thursday). They also had a two-game winning streak, sat in first place and were facing the last-place Chunichi Dragons. Their cleanup hitters were clicking (.346, .405 and .379 since league play resumed). However, they were also facing some young strong pitchers in the first two games, and were trotting out their two struggling veterans. Let’s see how this series played out in a game-by-game summary.

"There goes my chance at winning!" Another poor show of support for Iwata on Tuesday.

“There goes my chance at winning!” Another poor show of support for Iwata on Tuesday.

Game 1: Starter Minoru Iwata has not been himself since he was given the task of shutting down the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the last game of interleague play on June 16*. Fortunately he came out strong in this one, allowing just one run (on a sac fly) over 7 innings. Unfortunately for the Tigers, that was all the Dragons needed as our guys could not bring anyone home in this one. A huge chance in the second (runners on 2nd & 3rd with no outs) was nullified by a double play on a base running miscue. The Dragons added two more insurance runs off Hiroaki Saiuchi late. Final Score: Dragons 3, Tigers 0.

Sorry, guys. Nohmi looks back, WAY back as Luna admires his first inning home run.

Sorry, guys. Nohmi looks back, WAY back as Luna admires his first inning home run.

Game 2: Speaking of struggling starters, Atsushi Nohmi came into this one having not won a game since June 24 and not impressing in any of his losses. He started this one off on the wrong foot as well, giving up a monstrous 2-run home run in the first frame. The Tigers struggled at the plate again in this one, registering just three hits in the first six innings. The Dragons tagged three more on Nohmi before he left (ego-) bruised up midway through the sixth. The lone solace and offense from the Tigers came in the bottom of the 7th, when Matt Murton took the first pitch deep to left center. Other opportunities presented themselves but in two cases, line drives right to their infielders ended rallies. Tuesday the Muscat streak ended, Wednesday the Koshien streak was over, too. Final Score: Dragons 5, Tigers 1.

Wild pitch! Murton avoids it, catcher misses it, Tigers win it.

Wild pitch! Murton avoids it, catcher misses it, Tigers win it.

Game 3: So the team needed a big night out of Takumi Akiyama to avoid a sweep. This was his first start of the year, and while he has shown potential in his time with the club, he just has not produced good numbers since his debut in 2010. In this one he looked good early on, and got a lot of help from his fielders. Through five, he had allowed no runs, while Murton drove in Hiroki Uemoto in the first, and Mauro Gomez hit another towering blast in the fifth to give the young starter a decent lead. Unfortunately, he did almost exactly what Shoya Yamamoto had done a few days prior. In his final inning, he lost whatever he had going, giving up two runs. Fortunately he got out of the sixth with a tie, and the game remained knotted until extra innings. In the 11th, Uemoto led off with a walk, then was (yawn) predictably bunted over to second by (yawn) Yamato. Pinch hitter Keisuke Kanoh also walked, as did Gomez, loading the bases for Murton. Talk about your funny finishes. The first pitch to our redhead (who got 3 hits today) was wild, and Uemoto came home to end it. Final Score: Tigers 3, Dragons 2.

Series Notes: *On June 16, despite an 11-2 lead after 8 innings, the team had Iwata take the mound in the ninth. Was it his request? I have no idea, but managers need to take responsibility for their careless overuse of pitchers’ arms. He threw 140 pitches and allowed 2 runs in the 9th that game, and struggled in 3 starts after that… Tuesday’s shutout loss was the Tigers’ eighth of the year. It is tied for worst in the Central… The Tigers have now had an incredible six games end in walk-offs against the Dragons this season. They’ve been on the winning side in four of these. One ended with a hit-by-pitch (March 28 – Kentaro Sekimoto), one was tied with a bases-loaded walk (May 6 – Ryota Arai had the game winning hit after that), and Thursday’s game ended on a wild pitch.

Here are the CL standings after tonight’s game.

15-7-9 Standings

Series Recap – June 30-July 2, 2015

It must have been getting lonely at the top. The Hanshin Tigers were the lone Central League team with a winning record heading into the last series of June, and they were riding a 7-game undefeated streak that stretched back to the middle of the month. Their best hitters were heating up, and their starters were getting the job done. This was the team fans were waiting to see all season! Could they keep it up as they started the summer with a 6-game road trip to the Kanto area?

Iwata joined Iwazaki as

Iwata joined Iwazaki as “kuyashii” (frustrated) pitchers who couldn’t get the job done. He would be joined a day later by fellow Iwa, Yuta Iwasada. Are they all told to use that same word when they can’t get through six innings?

Game 1: The big story was whether or not ironman Takashi Toritani was alright. After getting beaned in the back last week, his health was in question and his slump at the plate prompted Wada to slide him down the order to seventh. He responded with four hits in four at-bats, including opening the score in the 4th inning with a 2-run double off the left-center wall. His final hit of the game was an infield hit down the right field line. He beat the throw to first, but because of poor defense by the Swallows, a third Tigers run crossed the plate, tying the score with less than two innings to go. Starter Minoru Iwata continued to struggle with control and concentration at the plate, particularly the third time through the opponents’ order, and he was pulled before he could complete the sixth. He allowed 3 runs on 7 hits and 2 walks. Unfortunately for the Tigers, their most consistent reliever to date, Shinobu Fukuhara, fell apart and could not keep the game tied in the bottom of the eighth. He immediately put himself in a bad place by allowing a leadoff hit, a stolen base and a walk. One out later, he allowed two more hits, and was lucky to get out of the inning with just a one-run deficit, as two Swallows baserunners got tagged out on the base paths. The Tigers could not mount a rally in the ninth, and their winning streak came to an end. Final Score: Swallows 4, Tigers 3.

Game 2: For the first time since June 13th, the Tigers were forced to use one of their “fringe starters” as Yuta Iwasada took the mound. The 2013 1st round pick has been trying to prove himself capable and ready to join the rotation permanently, but struggled in the third inning of this one, giving up three runs and leaving the rest of the work to a shaky bullpen. Youngster Hiroaki Saiuchi, who pitched 2 2/3 innings of clean ball against Hiroshima to preserve a tie last week, looked to do the same here but instead lost his control in the fifth. Kazuya Takamiya also proved Wada’s lefty-vs-lefty theory wrong on this night, and after six innings of work, the birds had put six runs on the board. For the Tigers’ part, Matt Murton continued his stellar play with a solo shot in the second, and also made a brilliant catch at the wall later in the game. Starting catcher Ryutaro Umeno tied the game at 3 in the fifth with a 2-run blast, but it was all for naught. Down 6-3 late, pinch hitter Ryota Imanari singled but had his work negated by a Keisuke Kanoh double play. This was followed by a Mauro Gomez home run (his 10th on the year) but since it was just a solo shot, the team remained down two. In the ninth, Ryota Arai reached base on an error, and pinch hitter (what?) Kosuke Fukudome nearly justified his recent deification with a deep blast that barely missed tying the game. With runners on second and third and just one out, the team had a legitimate chance to tie the game, even win it, but a Katsuhiko Saka grounder to the mound and a Kohei Shibata fly out ended the game. Final Score: Swallows 6, Tigers 4.

(Not from Thursday's game.) Not sure what possessed Wada to put Imanari in the leadoff slot. My guess is the whole team was deflated when they saw the starting lineup (not Imanari's fault - he's been hitting well lately).

(Not from Thursday’s game.) Not sure what possessed Wada to put Imanari in the leadoff slot. My guess is the whole team was deflated when they saw the starting lineup (not Imanari’s fault – he’s been hitting well lately).

Game 3: Where Wednesday called for a righty-heavy lineup (the Swallows started a lefty), Thursday begged Wada to do the opposite. He trotted out six lefties to face a right-handed pitcher, even giving Imanari the leadoff role, and putting Fumiya Araki in the two-slot (benching Hiroki Uemoto after his poor fielding and hitting on Wednesday). Toritani stayed down in sixth, and Shibata got the start in center, batting seventh. Certainly a very different lineup than the ones that had recorded nine or more hits in nine straight games. It showed, as the team generated just five hits (three from the recently dependable cleanup hitters), and the pitching staff once again got pounded, completing the sweep in style. Atsushi Nohmi lasted just 4 innings, taxing the bullpen even further, and Hiroya Shimamoto allowed 5 runs in the eighth, ensuring him a spot on the farm team from tomorrow. Final Score: Swallows 10, Tigers 1.

And with that, the Yakult Swallows find themselves in first. Four different teams have occupied the top spot now since the end of May, and once again no Central League team is over the .500 mark. Here are the current standings.

15-7-2 Standings

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!

By the Numbers: Interleague & Beyond

Let’s look back on the past 3 weeks, in which we played against the six Pacific League teams. We’ll go through the numbers, starting with…

0 – The number of runs allowed in 24 innings pitched by Randy Messenger. He shut out the Saitama Seibu Lions for 7 innings, then the Nippon Ham Fighters for 8, and finally the Orix Buffaloes for 9. He came out with just a 2-0 record, getting a no-decision last Friday as the cross-town rival Buffaloes managed to push…

1 run across the plate against reliever Shinobu Fukuhara in the 10th inning of that game. He allowed three straight singles and looked to still be in a position to get out of the jam until Kohei Shibata bobbled the ball in center field. Still, instead of lamenting the Tigers’ loss here, we should be glad that they also won…

2 games by that same 1-0 score. Both of these were with Messenger on the mound, including the second one which came against NPB poster boy Shohei Ohtani. Look for him to eventually find his way to the major leagues. Another player who just acquired international free agency rights is Nobuhiro Matsuda, who hit…

3 home runs in the series against the Tigers, including a walkoff against reliever Yuya Andoh in extras in the rubber match. Fukuoka’s converted bandbox, Yafuoku Dome, had its outfield walls brought in after averaging just 1.03 home runs per game last season. This year, heading into interleague play, the average was up to over 2.5 per game! Anyways, the Hawks absolutely dominated the Tigers and won the interleague title with a 12-6 record. They hit a whopping 23 home runs (1st) and stole 13 bases (T-3rd), while the Tigers managed to swipe just…

4 bases in 18 games. So much for Wada’s goal of stealing 100 on the season. In order to do that, they would need to steal 7 every 10 games. At this stage of the season (64 games in) they have just 22, which puts them on pace for just 49 all year. Just half of Wada’s goal! Brutal, wouldn’t you say? Speaking of brutal, the Tigers’ batting average in interleague (.235) was the lowest among the 12 teams, and the team had…

5 of their 6 qualified hitters (who got enough at bats) in the bottom third of league standings. Only Takashi Toritani (.296) was able to finish in the top half (31st out of 68 hitters), and while everyone has been so worried about Matt Murton (.230), our slugger Mauro Gomez hit a skinny .209 and “healthy” Ryota Imanari singled his way to a .204 average. He did not have a single extra-base hit in 49 at bats. The Tigers bats really only showed life in two games: their 9-8 nail-biter against Lotte and the final game, an 11-4 blowout. In fact, the Tigers played in…

6 blowouts, winning just that one. They lost 2-9 and 4-9 to the Lions, 0-5 to the Hawks, and 1-15 and 1-10 to the Buffaloes. In the 6 blowout games, the team’s run differential was -33. They went 1-5 in those ones. In the other 12 games, the team went 9-3, but the run differential was just +10. Interestingly, all of their blowout losses came on the road, where they lost…

7 of their 9 games. Was it the DH-rule that threw them off? Possibly. Well, it at least accounts for their meagre 17 runs (1.89 per game) versus 42 at Koshien (4.67 per). It could also account for the ridiculous amount of runs they gave up. The starters were worse on the road, without a doubt. The lone road wins came in Messenger’s shutdown of the Lions and Shintaro Fujinami‘s relative containing of the Hawks. Awful starts by the youngens (Yuya Yokoyama and Yuta Iwasada) aside, Atsushi Nohmi was a mess on the road, and Minoru Iwata was much less effective away from Koshien, where the team recorded…

8 home wins in 9 games. The lone loss was a blip on closer Seung-hwan Oh‘s record, and despite what his critics say, he is an elite closer. He allowed 4 runs in one inning to blow the opener against the Lotte Marines on June 2nd, but after that he threw six innings of shutout ball, striking out 9 and allowing just 2 baserunners. Before the meltdown, he also had 4 shutout innings (5 baserunners) and 6 strikeouts. That makes 10 innings, 7 baserunners (0.70 WHIP), no runs allowed, 15 strikeouts in 8 appearances. I’ll take one bad outing to go along with those incredible numbers any day. His home run to Kakunaka was one of 18 the team gave up in 18 games, as opposed to just…

9 hit by their own players. Of those, Gomez hit 3, Kosuke Fukudome hit 3, and one each was hit by Hiroki Uemoto, Toritani and Keisuke Kanoh. That’s it. Nothing for Murton, Imanari, the center field platoon, or the catchers. Cause for alarm? I would say so, especially in light of the 5 straight games in which the hitters got…

10 or more strikeouts (June 10-14). Last season one of the Tigers’ strengths was its walks-to-strikeouts ratio. This year it seems like everyone is swinging and missing (or just looking at strike 3) a lot more than in years past. Gomez is second in the league in K’s, Murton has more than usual, keen-eyed Fukudome has been seen frowning at umps more than ever as well. This does not take into account Imanari’s strikeout spree, either!


The team now has 79 games left to figure out how to start winning consistently, or at least how to get on a roll. They have signed Nelson Perez in hopes of either waking Murton up or getting more power and production out of left field. They have also announced that “Sunday Shin-chan” Fujinami will pitch Sundays from now on, as his 2013 Sunday record (9-3) could help improve the 2015 Tigers’ Sunday blues (4-8). The overall record has hovered near the .500 mark for over 2 weeks and has not been 2 games over water since April 4, when they were 5-3. Fans can talk all they want about how they are “just 2 games out of first” but we all know the Giants will pick themselves up by their bootstraps, and even if DeNA continues its plummet (3-14-1 in interleague, worst since the mini-series started in 2005) , you know the Hiroshima Carp are primed to make a charge. Starters Kenta Maeda, Kris Johnson and Hiroki Kuroda give them a chance on most nights, and their bats are starting to show signs of life, too. The Swallows have also had spells of great pitching and great hitting, just not at the same time. If they do, they will also contend for the playoffs.

There are only three teams allowed to the dance, and the Tigers have paid enough lip service to fans about winning the pennant in the team’s 80th anniversary season. It’s time to start winning and make a move, men!

Can the team live up to the slogan at last?

Can the team live up to the slogan at last?

Series Recap – June 5-8, 2015

While sweeping the Lotte Marines would have been ideal, winning the last two of the series was enough to give the Tigers a little momentum and confidence heading into the hardest part of the interleague schedule. They would host the first place Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters over the weekend, and are scheduled to wrap up with two road series, one against the defending champions and the other against their cross-town rivals. The team with the worst batting average in Nippon pro baseball was slated to face two of the best pitchers in the Pacific right from the start – Shohei Ohtani and Mitsuo Yoshikawa. Would they be able to muster enough offense to keep the momentum going? Or would they sputter once again and fall back down in the standings?

Uemoto's raised hand is barely higher than Messenger's head! The two combined to give the Tigers a narrow victory on Saturday afternoon.

Uemoto’s raised hand is barely higher than Messenger’s head! The two combined to give the Tigers a narrow victory on Saturday afternoon.

Game 1: While they had their best pitcher going on Saturday (after Friday was rained out), we had our resurgent ace, Randy Messenger, to combat him. It truly was a pitching duel for the ages, as both hurlers recorded strikeout after strikeout, and blank inning after blank inning. The lone exception was in the fourth, when the Tigers managed three hits (Kohei Shibata, Matt Murton and an RBI single by Hiroki Uemoto), eking a run out after strikeouts by mashers Mauro Gomez and Kosuke Fukudome threatened to end the inning without a score. Ohtani was his usual self the rest of the way, going seven strong and allowing just the single run while striking out 11. However, our hero today was the big man, Messenger. He threw eight shutout innings, striking out eight and only allowing two runners to reach second base (one on his own fielding error in the fifth). In the hero interview (click here for audio), he made sure to give credit to his fielders – Gomez made a nice diving catch to record a double play in the 2nd, and Uemoto flipped the ball to first with his glove to nail the runner in time in the 6th. Closer Seung-hwan Oh came in to finish the game, and showed no signs of being rattled by last week’s nightmare. He struck out the side. The Tigers are back at .500! Final Score: Tigers 1, Fighters 0.

All nines on the heroes' podium on this day - Kanoh and Murton drove in 3 of the team's 4 runs.

All nines on the heroes’ podium on this day – Kanoh and Murton drove in 3 of the team’s 4 runs.

Game 2: Though he recorded a hit on Saturday, the talk of the press still surrounded Murton and rumors of signing a sixth foreigner and shipping Matt down to the farm. He came out on fire in this one, hitting a drive to right field in the first. He would score on a Gomez double, and the Tigers had an early lead once again. Starter Atsushi Nohmi gave up a home run in the second to the Fighters’ pipsqueak Oka, and the game was tied until the fifth. Once again, Murton came through, this time with a rare hit to left field, scoring Takashi Toritani. The Tigers accomplished a rare feat (for them), scoring in three consecutive innings, as pinch-hitter Keisuke Kanoh got a long-awaited RBI hit in the sixth, and Murton capped off his strong night with an RBI double to left (again!) in the seventh. Despite scares from the bullpen, Oh once again closed things down in the ninth with another clean inning, and the Tigers went over .500 for the first time since April 5th. Final Score: Tigers 4, Fighters 1.

rainot

Game 3: Due to inclement weather today, this game will not be played until sometime next week (June 15-18).

Series Notes: Since allowing a hit in the top of the 10th against the Marines on June 3, Oh has mowed down 11 straight batters, 8 on strikeouts. He has 3 saves and a win on this Tigers 4-game win streak. In just 1.5 seasons with the team, he has racked up 55 saves and is now 4th all-time in team history. Apparently the “stone-faced Buddha” does not get rattled too easily… Messenger struck out Fighters pitcher Ohtani in all three of his plate appearances. The pitcher everyone anticipated seeing hit, failed to make any connection at all… The latest reports indicate that Ryota Arai is ready to join the team on Tuesday, and that Kentaro Sekimoto and Tsuyoshi Nishioka are doing what they can to rehabilitate. The former will likely be back much sooner than the latter. No timetable has beenset for either player, as of now… Despite having the worst batting average (.235) and second-worst ERA (3.59) in NPB over the course of the whole season, the Tigers have the 4th best average (.268) and top ERA (2.47) during interleague play. Perhaps they are heating up as summer comes along… The Pacific League has been flexing its muscle during this mini-season, going 35-32-3 so far, and will play the bulk of the interleague schedule at home. Owning the best record among CL teams has benefited the Tigers immensely in the standings, as seen below. They are actually just one strong series away from taking first place… The team will travel to Fukuoka tomorrow to play three games at Yafuoku Dome, then come back to Kansai and play three more at Kyocera Dome against host Orix Buffaloes. No more rainouts until regular league play resumes.

15-6-7 Standings