Series Recap: July 31-August 2, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the standings after play on Sunday night:

15-8-2 Standings

Series Recap – 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 20-21, 2015

TigersSwallowsJune2015“Forget interleague play. Move on and play better,” they said. Despite the harsh words spoken by coaches, players and fans alike, the Tigers finished the mini-season with a 10-8 record, good for best among Central League teams, and putting them close enough to the top of the CL standings despite being 2 games over par (under .500, that is). As league play resumed with a two-game set against the Yakult Swallows, and then two more on the road against the Hiroshima Carp, the Tigers shortened their rotation and hoped to take at least 3 of 4. At the halfway point, how have they fared?

Messenger lifts Uemoto (maybe half Randy's weight dripping wet) as they celebrate the team's win. The two were named co-heroes of the game.

Messenger lifts Uemoto (maybe half Randy’s weight dripping wet) as they celebrate the team’s win. The two were named co-heroes of the game.

Game 1: This was the day many have been waiting for. At long last, 254 at bats into his season, Matt Murton has finally hit his first home run. (Video of his bomb here.) It came in the bottom of the second, and he followed it up with another hit in the fourth, giving many hope that his extra practice sessions on days off has helped him find his groove. He was not the only foreigner to come up big on this day, as Mauro Gomez also hit a pair of RBI singles. Starter Randy Messenger fought off the Swallows despite not bringing his A+ game (it was, say, A- on this day), allowing just a run in seven innings pitched (six hits, five walks, seven strikeouts). Seung-hwan Oh shut the door and set the fat lady singing after his 10-pitch shutout ninth inning. Final Score: Tigers 4, Swallows 1.

Is it just me, or are most of Fukudome's home runs solo shots? Still, happy to see him hit his 9th of the year in Sunday's game.

Is it just me, or are most of Fukudome’s home runs solo shots? Still, happy to see him hit his 9th of the year in Sunday’s game.

Game 2: If Saturday was a party for the foreigners, Sunday was one for the natives. Ryota Imanari opened the scoring with a seeing-eye single to right. After a couple of runs against starter Shintaro Fujinami in the fourth, the Tigers roared back in the sixth, with a Kosuke Fukudome solo shot (his 9th on the year) and then a bases-loaded 2-RBI double by pinch hitter Keisuke Kanoh. The Tigers never looked back, and their Korean closer once again sent the visitors packing on just 12 pitches. Lotsa game highlights here. Final Score: Tigers 4, Swallows 2.

Series Notes: Murton’s home run came on a 3-1 count and landed somewhat deep in the left field stands. Said the man, “At last I got it. I’m glad I was able to put us on the board so early in the first game back after interleague play.” Indeed, fans welcomed the long ball… Hiroki Uemoto had a great series, driving in one, stealing a base and plating twice in the opener, and getting three hits in the second game… “Sixth foreigner” Nelson Perez made his farm debut on Saturday, committing an error in the first inning before going 0-for-4 (2 strikeouts) in a less-than-stellar debut. “I’m still not in 100% game shape,” the Dominican explained, “I didn’t get any rest all week”… Messenger’s shutout streak ended at 27 in the 4th inning of Saturday’s game. It is the second longest of the year by a Tigers pitcher (Fujinami went 32) and left him just short of the club record by a foreign pitcher. That mark still belongs to legend Gene Bacque at 34. Still, Messenger has lowered his ERA from 5.88 when he got shipped down to the farm, to 3.71 now… The Tigers now find themselves in second place, just a half game out of first, thanks to a prolonged slump by the Giants and Baystars. However, just 3.5 games separate the top from the bottom in the Central, leaving everyone in contention. Here are the standings as of the end of play on June 21:

15-6-21 Standings

Series Recap – May 12-14, 2015

The last time the Hanshin Tigers had been swept two times in one season at Koshien was 2001. On May 11, they already matched that futility. They also became the first Central League team to reach 20 losses for the first time since 2001. They also had the game following their Koshien sweep rained out for the second straight series. Last time, they followed the day off with a 7-2 stinker to the last place Carp. Could they fare any better against the struggling Swallows at Jingu Stadium?

Murton collides with the catcher after the throw from right arrived. He was out and both benches cleared as the Swallows took objection to his "rough play" but cooler heads prevailed in the end.

Murton collides with the catcher after the throw from right arrived. He was out and both benches cleared as the Swallows took objection to his “rough play” but cooler heads prevailed in the end.

Game 1: On the mound to stop the bleeding was Minoru Iwata. Despite many Tigers media standing in Messenger, Nohmi or Fujinami’s camp as the staff ace, Iwata has led the team in ERA for much of the past season and some change. He kept up the strong pitching in this one, despite giving up several hits. His final line looks mediocre only because the relievers (namely Yuya Andoh) could not strand the runners they earned. Either way, the Tigers bats came to life, reaching double digits in hits for the first time in 12 games, and hitting two home runs (by Ryutaro Umeno in the third and Kosuke Fukudome in the 6th) for the first time in 33 games. They never trailed in this one, though each of their scoring innings were followed by the Swallows narrowing the gap. In the end, Seung-hwan Oh finished them off, despite giving up a leadoff home run. Goodbye, losing streak! Final Score: Tigers 7, Swallows 5.

Fujinami pitched a complete game for the win. His stat line: 9 IP, 8 hits, 1 ER, 1 BB, 9 K on 113 pitches.

Fujinami pitched a complete game for the win. His stat line: 9 IP, 8 hits, 1 ER, 1 BB, 9 K on 113 pitches.

Game 2: Tsuyoshi Nishioka wasted no time giving the Tigers an early lead, clubbing former Lotte teammate Yoshihisa Naruse’s fourth pitch over the left field wall (video here). Tigers starter Shintaro Fujinami pitched efficiently as well, but surrendered the tying run in the second inning on a solo home run. Fortunately for him, the bats came to work again tonight, and they reached double digits in hits and launched two home runs (the other was by catcher Kazunari Tsuruoka in the fifth) for the second consecutive game. The Tigers also achieved the rare feat (for them) of scoring runs in consecutive innings, as Yamato blooped a single to shallow right field, scoring Mauro Gomez and Matt Murton. And as we continue to speak of two consecutive games, Fukudome got caught in a run-down between second and third for the second straight night on that play. He is lucky the lead was three runs and that Fujinami brought his A game. He went the distance, shutting down the birdies the rest of the way for his first complete game victory of the year. Final Score: Tigers 4, Swallows 1.

The Tigers started the week 1.5 games deep in the cellar, and are now miraculously just a half game out of a playoff spot! This is because the DeNA Baystars swept the Chunichi Dragons and the Yomiuri Giants took two of three from the Hiroshima Carp. The first two slots in the Central are now quite separated from the bottom 4, which are quite clogged. Here are the standings:

15-5-14 Standings

From Friday, the Tigers will play three in Nagoya under the dome against the Dragons. New import Mario Santiago will make his debut on the mound as the Tigers hope to move even higher in the standings. Randy Messenger, who was demoted to the Western League for a tune-up, is scheduled to return to the team for their next series, a 3-gamer against the Giants at home next week. Over the weekend, it is possible for the Tigers to move into a tie for second or back down into sixth. They look like a different team out there (more confidence and energy), but we can only hope they can keep the momentum going through the weekend and until interleague play begins on May 26. Go TIGERS!

Series Recap – April 28-30, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the current standings:

15-4-30 Standings

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

Series Recap: March 31-April 2, 2015

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

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

After a promising opening series at Kyocera Dome, the Tigers looked to jump out to a perfect 6-0 start as they faced the Tokyo Yakult Swallows at Jingu Stadium. Unfortunately, the cooler weather brought about a cold spell at the plate as well. In three games, the pinstripes managed just seven runs, losing two of three to last year’s basement-dwelling birds.

15-3-Swallows

The first game started out about as well as any team could hope: Tsuyoshi Nishioka hit a home run, knocking in Takashi Toritani and Hiroki Uemoto in the process and giving the team a quick 3-0 lead. Unfortunately, that was all the fireworks the Tigers bats would provide on the night, and starter Atsushi Nohmi surrendered 4 runs in 6 innings as the team lost a close one. Final Score: Swallows 4, Tigers 3.

Wednesday night marked the long-awaited return of Akira Iwamoto to the lineup. In his first start in nearly three years, the youngster dazzled and confounded the Swallows bats, limiting them to 5 hits in 7 effective innings. The Tigers bats were also silent, but a 2-run RBI double by Yamato in the sixth provided enough offense to give the team all they needed to win. The victory was also preserved thanks to a clever fielding ruse by Kosuke Fukudome, who feigned being able to track down a hit to right, slowing down the runners, then relaying a throw home via Uemoto and gunning down the potential tying run. Closer Seung-hwan Oh struggled once again, but managed to preserve the win with a scoreless ninth. Final Score: Tigers 2, Swallows 1.

Last year’s surprise rookie Suguru Iwazaki got the start for the third game, and looked to be in control through four innings. The Tigers bats gave no support until a Nishoka dribbler found its way to right field, plating Toritani in the fifth. Unfortunately, that is also when the wheels fell off the cart for Iwazaki. He and reliever Kentaro Kuwahara combined to give up six hits, including a 2-run home run to Tetsuto Yamada, and before the team could come back up to the plate again, they were faced with a 5-1 deficit. Nishioka, who got three hits on the night, brought another run home in the seventh, but the rally died prematurely when slugger Mauro Gomez grounded into a double play. Reliever Daiki Enokida served up a grand slam home run to Yamada in the eighth to round out the scoring. Final Score: Swallows 9, Tigers 2.


Unfortunately for the Tigers, two of my biggest fears about the team seem to be coming true. First, the relief squad is not providing much relief. In this series alone, they combined to allow 4 earned runs in 8 1/3 innings. This does not factor in the first series, in which they surrendered 6 ER in 10 innings as well. Current ERA: 4.91. Second, the bats are so hit-and-miss, it’s not even funny. Big innings have been preceded and followed by several innings of silence. In this series alone, they scored three in inning 1, got nothing in innings 2-14, scored twice in inning 15, got nothing again from innings 16-22. No one expects runs every inning, but a little more consistency from the hitters would be nice. Several players have yet to hit their stride. Hopefully facing the so-far woeful (but longtime rival) Giants over the weekend will put some fire in their bellies.

Series notes: Thursday’s game featured the professional debuts of pitcher Hiroya Shimamoto (2 IP, 1 H, 0 ER) and outfielder Taiga Egoshi (1 AB, 0 H, 1 HBP). Combined with Tsuyoshi Ishizaki‘s debut against the Dragons, already three Tigers have seen their first action as pros this season. Hopefully the young players can make their presence felt in 2015… Matt Murton was a beast at Jingu Stadium last season, but finished this series just 2-for-11 (.182). Hopefully he can find his 2014 mojo soon… Gomez hit into three double plays in the series, and managed just two singles… Prior to Thursday’s game, third baseman Ryota Imanari was recalled from the farm. The team sent catcher Takashi Shimizu down to Naruohama to make room for him… Newly-signed reliever Mario Santiago made his debut on the farm on Wednesday, throwing three innings of shutout ball.