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 – 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

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

Tigers 1, Buffaloes 15 – The Rant

buffaloes15tigers1

Keep in mind, reader, that I love the Tigers, despite my harsh words. I want them to succeed, reach their potential, win games, even championships.

This is not a series recap, and there will be no series recap this time around. The Tigers’ play is not worthy of being retold. In fact, I question whether or not I should even be writing this at all. I simply want to voice a few things about the last two games in particular and the Tigers’ overall performance in general.

The biggest problem with the team, in spite of the ludicrous amount of runs allowed today, is not its pitching. The hitting is absolutely atrocious, and the past week has made that clearer than ever. Let’s look at our regular player’s lines over the interleague season, with the averages over the last 5 games in brackets. The number before the name is their NPB rank for average in interleague play.

28. Takashi Toritani: .302 (.200)

49. Kosuke Fukudome: .242 (.222)

53. Matt Murton: .231 (.000)

57. Hiroki Uemoto: .222 (.118)

60. Mauro Gomez: .207 (.125)

That’s right, these are their rankings out of 67 NPB batters who have had over 44 at bats during interleague play. We have ONE guy in the top 48, and FOUR in the bottom 19! And our THIRD BEST guy has been benched for the last two games! That brings me to the next problem…

Awww what's the matter, Wada? Someone mad that Uemoto copied your glasses choice? Or the losing?

Awww what’s the matter, Wada? Someone mad that Uemoto copied your glasses choice? Or the losing?

Management, coaching, strategy, etc. It’s been absolutely awful. I’m not a professional and honestly, I would be an awful manager from the dugout. But from my couch, I’m pretty good at this. The team has managed a mere 9 hits in the last two games, 4 of which came in garbage time in today’s blowout. In the first game of the series, starter Randy Messenger threw 9 brilliant innings of shutout ball, and was supported by 3 measly singles. In my opinion, there were several chances to bring in a pinch hitter to try to generate a hit, a run, which is all they needed to win this one. In the top of the 7th, with 2 outs, catcher Akihito Fujii (.192 on the season) stepped up to the plate. We could have used Keisuke Kanoh (who had hit a home run the day before) or even Murton, who is obviously a more capable bat than our old catcher. With Kazunari Tsuruoka on the bench, we still had a more-than-capable catcher to crouch behind the plate for the balance of the game. But Fujii struck out, ending the inning. Shunsuke opened the eighth with a hit, which, had he instead been able to do in the seventh, would have put the winning run in scoring position. Anyhow, in the eighth, after another delightful bunt to push Shunsuke into scoring position, we subbed in the “god of pinch hitters” Kohei Shibata (/end sarcasm). Again, why not Kanoh or Murton? Shibata proceeded to strike out (and it was his error that allowed the winning run to score in the 10th. Not that I’m throwing him under the bus.), and so did captain Tori, ending the threat. Both times I was yelling at the TV (and posting on Facebook) about why this was a bad move. I was right, but being right never felt so wrong. Again in the top of the 10th, Wada went with Fujii at the plate when he could have easily brought in a pinch hitter. Another strikeout, another wasted opportunity.

Yokoyama didn't have it today, but he was left in too long in the 4th.

Yokoyama didn’t have it today, but he was left in too long in the 4th.

Then there was today’s game. Starter Yuya Yokoyama began the 4th (in which he had just received a 1-0 lead courtesy of a Fukudome upper-deck blast) by plunking their leadoff batter. Then a hit, then a walk. It was clear he was gassed. (He threw in relief on Tuesday.) But still, the score was 1-0 and the bases were loaded. His pitches were all up in the zone, and he walked the next guy on 4 high pitches. Tie game. Another hitter, another walk, still his pitches were high and errant. I’ve been reading a book by former MLB catcher Jason Kendall lately, in which he says if a pitcher’s balls are all high, it’s a clear sign he is tired and needs to be pulled. Wada waited too long to pull the trigger. With a 2-1 deficit and bases juiced and still no one out, he brought in… Naoto Tsuru. Yes, the man who is better known for his Facebook page than his pitching. The game is still within reach, why not bring in a more experienced pitcher, like, say, Kazuya Takamiya or Yuya Andoh? At least they have put out fires earlier in the year. (And sometimes failed as well, mind you. But still, they had experience… that’s the key!) Tsuru allowed two more hits, which was enough for the Buffaloes to add 4 to their score, and the game was now officially a joke. After that, you can throw any reliever in you want, it doesn’t make a difference. Look at our bats – not like they’re gonna stage a comeback! (See hitting averages above.) So it matters little that Tatsuya Kojima and Takamiya let in another 9 runs. When the game is on the line, you gotta go with your experienced pitchers. Bad, BAD decision making by Yutaka Wada were rewarded with poor performances on all fronts, and an embarrassing loss was the result.

I’m running out of time, space and patience, so I will not continue my list of things that went wrong. I will just say one thing about each player, and call it a night.

Toritani: LEAD the team. Not in stats, not in games played, but with your voice. Create an atmosphere. Expect more from your mates.

Uemoto: Nice defense at least. Your bat has been pretty quiet since the beaning in Yokohama.

Murton: You gotta stop being so mad, especially in front of the camera. You’re not endearing yourself to teammates or fans. And your “There’s peace in Jesus” comments in hero interviews of the past look pretty hypocritical these days. Oh, and swing for the fences once or twice, please.

Gomez: Don’t swing at low pitches. Just don’t.

Fukudome: No beefs. You’re the team’s only slugger these days.

Imanari: Practice batting more. Your slump is turning you into the left-handed Murton. (OUCH. Sorry Matt.)

Center fielders: One of you, step up, please. Just one. The platoon is awful.

Tsuruoka & Fujii: When interleague ends, we need you to hit, too… because two automatic outs at the bottom of the order are not acceptable.

The End. Tomorrow’s my birthday and I expect a win from you. But I won’t be watching it so someone out there will need to report it to me. Thanks.

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 19-21, 2015

Every time the Yomiuri Giants come to town this season, the Tigers are offering some kind of special at Koshien Stadium. In celebration of the team’s 80th year, they are paying homage to all the magical moments between the two clubs, dubbing the series “Legends Day.” The question is, are the Tigers still producing legendary players? Would this series give birth to any legendary moments that will be talked about 20 years from now when the team celebrates its centennial? Let’s look at what went down these last three days!

This one did not go well for Iwata and the Tigers. Three straight innings giving up runs took the wind out their sails. They would go on to lose 8-0.

This one did not go well for Iwata and the Tigers. Three straight innings giving up runs took the wind out their sails. They would go on to lose 8-0.

Game 1: Two strong pitchers took the mound in this one, but only one would be left standing at the end. The other failed to make it through the fifth for the first time all year. Minoru Iwata got taken deep by Giants’ catcher Shinnosuke Abe in the second, and although that was all the offense the Giants would need on this night, they kept adding more. Three more came in the third after a rare Takashi Toritani error, one more in the fourth and two more off reliever Kentaro Kuwahara in the sixth. The Tigers, for their part, mustered just 4 hits (two of them doubles, mind you) but got nothing to show for it, as the Giants cruised to victory in this one, extending the Tigers’ losing streak to three. The  lineup shuffle did no good, as Matt Murton was unable to get things going from the leadoff spot, though Kosuke Fukudome got two hits in his return to the five-hole. Final Score: Giants 8, Tigers 0.

Shintaro Fujinami is starting to show his potential, going the distance for the third time in four starts.

Shintaro Fujinami is starting to show his potential, going the distance for the third time in four starts.

Game 2: The Tigers desperately needed to right the ship, so manager Wada once again shuffled the hitting order, even changing out one of his regulars. Toritani led off, Murton hit third (something I had long been waiting to see) and Fumiya Araki replaced Hiroki Uemoto at second base. Despite the changes, the Tigers still did not generate much offense. Murton led the way with three hits, and the lone Tigers run came in the sixth as Mauro Gomez singled to left, driving in Tsuyoshi Nishioka. The opportunity for more runs was there, with runners on first and second and no one out, but two strikeouts and a grounder later, the inning was over. Again the chance for insurance runs presented itself in the eighth, as Nishioka reached on an error, Murton singled and Uemoto pinch-ran and stole second. With runners on second and third and no one out, the chance to score was golden. However, Canadian reliever Scott Mathieson struck out Gomez, and after walking Fukudome, also rang up Yamato and induced an inning-ending pop fly to Kentaro Sekimoto. The story in this one, though, was hero Shintaro Fujinami, who pitched his first career complete game shutout. He allowed just two hits while striking out 10, throwing 137 pitches. He has now thrown complete games in 3 of his last 4 outings dating back to a heartbreaking 1-0 loss in Tokyo against these same Giants at the start of the month. Final Score: Tigers 1, Giants 0.

Rookie Yuya Yokoyama pitched well, going 7 innings and allowing just 6 hits and 1 run. He did not factor into the decision.

Rookie Yuya Yokoyama pitched well, going 7 innings and allowing just 6 hits and 1 run. He did not factor into the decision.

Game 3: Rookie Yuya Yokoyama made is grand debut with the hopes of helping his team to a second straight win and a first series win against their longtime rivals. The Giants had a strong first-year pitcher of their own on the mound, and the game was scoreless through five quick innings. Unfortunately for the Tigers, Yokoyama finally surrendered a run in the sixth after back-to-back doubles, and the Tigers still had just one hit through seven innings when our pitcher left the mound. In line for the loss, he could only sit and watch from the dugout. Kazuya Takamiya held fort in the eighth, and in the home half, finally something happened for the good guys. A leadoff Fukudome single chased their starter, and after another brilliant strategic sacrifice bunt by pinch bunter Shunsuke, a walk to Sekimoto (starting to sound familiar?), Keisuke Kanoh came to the plate. Last series, this same scenario occurred and the inning ended on a double play. This time, though, the small-ball approach actually worked, as Kanoh got plunked, Ryota Arai hit a sacrifice fly to bring the tying run home, and with runners on the corners, stone-cold Toritani came to the plate. He had struck out in his first three at bats, something very uncharacteristic of him. He made everything alright, though, with a scorching single to right, and the Tigers had the lead! Naturally, closer Seung-hwan Oh made things interesting, giving up two hits between outs, and with one man to go, there were runners on second and third. A called third strike ended the game, gave the Tigers their first series win against the Giants this year, and sent the balloons flying. Final Score: Tigers 2, Giants 1.

15-5-21 Standings

Series Notes: With an errant throw in the seventh inning of Game 1, Uemoto committed his NPB-worst 7th error on the year. “I’ll do better from now on,” he said… Fujinami leads all NPB pitchers with 4 complete games this season. His previous high was two in his sophomore season (last year). The young phenom is now 3-4 on the season with a sparkling 2.43 ERA… With the two wins to end the series, the Tigers have now gone an entire month either winning or losing in 2+ game chunks. Since April 22, their streaks have gone: 2L, 4W, 3L, 2W, 3L, 3W, 3L, 2W. Total: 11 wins, 11 losses… Before his game-winning hit, Toritani was hitless in his previous 12 at-bats and his average was down to .223 on the year… Since reaching double figures in hits in two straight games, the Tigers have gone 31-for-176 in 6 games (.176 average), scoring just 6 runs. Though they are 3-3 in those games, clearly the bats need to wake up if they are going to make a push for the playoffs… Just one series to go until the interleague portion of the schedule starts next Tuesday – a trip to Yokohama to face the league-leading Baystars. Projected starting pitchers: Mario Santiago, Atsushi Nohmi, Yuta Iwasada.

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!

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 7-9, 2015

Baystars1

Game 1: No runs until the 6th.

Baystars2

Game 2: No runs until the 5th.

Baystars3

Game 3: No runs until the 8th.

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

15-4-Baystars

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

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

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

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

15-4-9 Standings

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

Monthly Hanshin Tigers – March Edition

monthlytigers2015-3It came out today, I got it today – the March edition of the monthly Hanshin Tigers magazine. This month’s cover features veteran pitcher Atsushi Nohmi. The table of contents looks like this:

  • Close-up Interview – Atsushi Nohmi
  • Another Side View – Atsushi Nohmi
  • Current Observations – Expectations and Uncertainties this spring
  • Introducing… Travis Mikihisa Samura
  • Players’ Note: Daiki Enokida
  • Tigers’ Diary – Yoshio Yoshida
  • Tigers Photo Topics (Spring Camp pics)
  • Special Interview – Yutaka Enatsu
  • Ticket Information
  • Farm Report
  • Teammates Sound Off – Kazuya Takamiya

If any of these articles/topics interest you and you’d like to see an English translation/summary, let me know in the comments section!