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

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.)

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.

Nightmare at Koshien

Why did Tigers fans have to watch this happen to their team? What did they do to deserve this? The simple answer is not the best one, in my opinion.

 

First, let’s explain the situation. It was the top of the ninth inning and the Tigers were up 3-2. Whom else should they bring in but incumbent closer Seung-hwan Oh? And it looked like it was the right move, as he retired the first two hitters. Fans had their victory balloons blown up and started the familiar chant: Ato hitori! Ato hitori! (One more to go! One more to go!) One outfield hit was followed by an infield hit, then a walk, and the bases were now loaded. Still, the Tigers had the lead and were one out from victory. The closer got hitter Kakunaka down to two strikes and the “Ato ikkyu!” (One pitch to go!) calls began. On full count, and no real choice but to throw a strike, the Marines hitter made no mistake, sending it into the right field stands, breaking the hearts of 33,000+ Tigers fans in the process.

The easy one to blame is the closer. He is paid to finish off opponents in the final inning of the game, and he struggled mightily with his control. There’s no excuse for loading the bases, especially to consecutive batters. Or is there? More on this a little later, but first, it should be noted that Oh was pretty bad in interleague play last season as well. Let’s hope he does not drag this with him into upcoming games.

Now we’ve looked at the easy scapegoat – how about the rest?

1) Poor fielding – Instead of throwing one man under the bus here, I’m going to look at a few plays that made a difference in the game. First of all, newly recalled Ryota Imanari bobbled an easy grounder that was primed to be a double play in the first. Instead the inning continued and the Marines scored the first run of the game. Shouldn’t have happened. Next, Takashi Toritani misplayed two balls over the course of the game, and one of those was in the fatal ninth inning. A grounder came to him and he failed to field it cleanly, resulting in the second hit of the inning. He was not charged with an error, something that is probably because of scorekeeping bias. In any case, the game could have ended 3-2 had the play been made. (I will also point out that Kosuke Fukudome and Kazunari Tsuruoka teamed up for a super play in the fifth, saving a run. Highlight here.)

2) Poor hitting – No, the Tigers did not do as poorly as usual. In fact, their 12 hits was their most in 17 games. However, with that many hits and a walk thrown in to boot, you’d like to see more than 3 runs on the scoreboard. Instead, they left 8 guys on base, hit into a double play and got caught stealing. Even when they scored in the second, third and seventh, they could have gotten more. In other words, the lead could have been much more than a run, had they only hit better in those crucial situations.

3) Poor decision-making – Yes, some of the blame always has to go to the manager. I don’t fault him for bringing in Oh when he did. What bugged me (and many other fans) was his insistence on bunting whenever Toritani reached first base. The first time, it worked – Hiroki Uemoto sucessfully moved him over to second base in the fourth inning, and Tori came around to score. In the sixth, though, it didn’t. He tried too hard to connect with a bad pitch, couldn’t deaden it enough and the result was a double play. Either way, I am sick and tired of the Tigers playing for one run. It’s not the answer! It hasn’t led to success, offense or wins so far this year! CHANGE YOUR STRATEGY, WADA!

In the end, though, it really comes down to Oh. Because the above things will happen over the course of the season to any team. The defense makes gaffes. The hitters get limited to “just” 3 runs. The manager (especially ours) will make poor decisions and play small ball. The closer’s job is to shut down the opponents, especially in close games. It should have been fairly easy – Shinobu Fukuhara took down the heart of the order 1-2-3 in the eighth, and Oh just had to knock out their 7th, 8th and then a pinch hitter. He got 2/3 to the way there. Then, tragedy struck. (And at press time, it’s looking pretty bad again tonight, folks. I might have to write another report again tomorrow!!!)

Series Recap – May 15-17, 2015

Many, including myself, wondered why the Tigers bothered signing a fifth foreigner back in March. After all, the Fab 4 did nothing but lead the league in at least one category each while staying healthy all year. What could go wrong in 2015? Well, on May 11, veteran ace Randy Messenger (league-worst 5.88 ERA) got sent down to the farm in a move that disappointed him and his family, and the newcomer from Puerto Rico would get a chance to play on the big stage. How would he fare? Would the Tigers continue their move up the standings? Could they keep the momentum going after a disastrous previous week? Let’s look at the games one by one.

“Super” Mario Santiago pitched 7 innings, giving up just one run on 7 hits, 3 walks. He struck out 5. Photo by Sponichi.

Game 1: Newcomer Mario Santiago made his debut for the parent club, and seemed to fit right in with other Tigers pitchers: put guys on base but hold strong. Through four innings, he had allowed 7 baserunners (one on an error) and never got the first batter out. He struck out the leadoff hitter in the fifth, but then gave up two hits and the Dragons took the lead. The Tigers could not get their bats, going, however. Santiago held the fort down through seven, and was lined up for the loss, when pinch hitter Ryota Arai again worked his magic, leading off the eighth with a single. Yamato pinch-ran, stole second, and crossed home on a Tsuyoshi Nishioka double. A few batters later with two men on base, Matt Murton delivered the go-ahead hit and suddenly, “Super Mario” had a chance at being the winning pitcher! Shinobu Fukuhara worked a clean eighth, and closer Seung-hwan Oh managed to hold off their assault in the ninth. He was also helped with a game-ending throw-out to second on the Dragons’ second failed stolen base attempt. Props to veteran catcher Kazunari Tsuruoka. Santiago wins! Final Score: Tigers 2, Dragons 1.

With no outs and a runner on first, manager Yutaka Wada brought in Shunsuke to

With no outs and a runner on first, manager Yutaka Wada brought in Shunsuke to “pinch bunt” the runner over the 2nd. The result: no run scored.

Game 2: Facing the league’s 3rd best pitcher, the Tigers’ bats would be hard-pressed to generate any offense in this one. They depended heavily on veteran lefty Atsushi Nohmi to keep it close. And he did. Through seven innings, he surrendered just six hits (two of which a better third baseman may have stopped) and limited the league’s best hitting order to just one run. Unfortunately for Nohmi, the bats were even less supportive of him than they were of Santiago one day earlier. A third inning single by Akihito Fujii and a fifth inning single by Murton was all that they got, if you don’t count the three walks and plunking they took. In the end, despite big chances in the eighth and ninth innings, the pinstripes were shut out and fell back out of third place. Final Score: Dragons 1, Tigers 0.

Suguru Iwazaki could not get things going in this one. He apologized for not being able to keep his team in the game after lasting just 4 innings.

Suguru Iwazaki could not get things going in this one. He apologized for not being able to keep his team in the game after lasting just 4 innings.

Game 3: Not a whole lot went the Tigers’ way in this one. Starter Suguru Iwazaki lasted just 4 innings as he walked the bases loaded without registering an out in the 4th, giving up three runs on a grounder and a single. Akira Iwamoto, who up to this point had been used as a starter, came in to relieve Iwazaki in the 5th, gave up another 3-spot on 4 hits and left without completing the inning. The consolation for our guys was that Mauro Gomez broke out of his recent funk with three hits, including a solo home run in the ninth. It was his first long ball in nearly a month and just his third of the year. Wada still found room to put a little blame on him, though, as he grounded into an inning-ending double play in the 3rd with runners on 1st and 3rd. Final Score: Dragons 6, Tigers 1.

Series Notes: For one brief day, the Tigers found themselves in 3rd place in the Central. That quickly disappeared though, as all three teams near them in the standings won on Sunday, and the team finds itself back in a tie for 4th, just a half game out of the cellar. They also face the red-hot Giants and Baystars this week so they’ll need to bring their A-game… Murton has now hit safely in 5 straight games since his benching on May 10. His average still sits at .242 but he is hitting with more authority than he was earlier in the year… The Tigers remain at the bottom of the league in batting average (.228), home runs (18) and steals (14). Their 3.92 ERA also ranks last in the Central… Outfielder Masahiro Nakatani was optioned back to the farm team. He made just three plate appearances while up with the big club, recording one hit… Since April 22, the Tigers lost 2, won 4, lost 3, won 2, lost 3, won 3, and lost 2. Here are the current standings in the Central:

15-5-17 Standings

Series Commentary: Santiago definitely made a case for staying up with the big club, but a conundrum presents itself: whom does the team deactivate? The current NPB rule allows for a maximum of four foreigners on the active roster at any given time. Messenger is on the farm but early indications were that he would be recalled after the minimum 10 days of deactivation. However, more recent news reports suggest that rookie Yuya Yokoyama will start on the 21st and Santiago will get the nod on the 22nd. This means Messenger’s stay on the farm will go at least 12 days. Meanwhile, Murton is just starting to heat up, Oh is the incumbent closer with no reason to be demoted, and Gomez, in spite of his struggles in May, is not really doing anything demotion-worthy at the plate. It will be interesting to see how the club handles this one.

I understand the importance of “one run” in these close games, but I completely disagree with Wada’s decision-making late in game 2. When the Tigers finally got the leadoff man on base in the eighth and ninth, Wada called for his second batter to bunt the leadoff man to second, essentially giving two of the final six outs away for free. I know the Tigers have a penchant for hitting grounders, some of which end in double plays, but when games are this close, you can’t give the opposition free outs! A recent “study” (in MLB, mind you) showed that outs are more precious than bases. In other words, you have a better chance of scoring with no outs and a runner on first than you do with one out and a runner on second. Still, with Hiroki Uemoto – the team’s “speedster” – on first, Wada not only elected to bunt him over, but brought in a pinch hitter to do so! The next pinch hitter, Kentaro Sekimoto, was plunked, and with one out and runners on first and second, a third pinch hitter, Keisuke Kanoh, grounded into a 6-4-3 double play. Inning over. The results were no better in the ninth, when Nishioka drew a walk and was bunted to second by our bunting pro, Yamato. Takashi Toritani struck out, Gomez walked, and again we had runners on first and second (but with two outs). Murton drove one deep to center field, but within range of their defense. Game over. Two outs wasted on bunts, and nothing to show for it. STOP CALLING FOR THE BUNT, PLEASE!

torihitthird

Team captain Takashi Toritani has a lower batting average (.234) than any non-catcher and non-pitcher in the lineup. In fact in this lineup, even the pitcher is hitting better than him! (Pssst! The pitcher actually has the best average on the starting nine on this night!)

I said it before and I’ll say it again. Toritani’s not pulling his weight. He is hitting just .143 with runners in scoring position on the season. They dropped Murton in the order when he was slumping, moved Uemoto all over the order (he’s hit first, second, sixth and seventh already this year), and benched Yamato for long periods. But Tori gets exemption from being moved? (He started the year as leadoff hitter but was moved not for his poor play, but Uemoto’s. Plus, he didn’t want to hit leadoff in the first place.) I believe it’s time to drop him down to seventh and really make this batting order better balanced. Here’s my suggestion. Your ideas are welcome in the comments.

1) Nishioka / 2) Yamato / 3) Murton / 4) Gomez / 5) Fukudome / 6) Uemoto / 7) Toritani / 8) Catcher / 9) Pitcher

Uemoto could be in second, with Yamato moving down to the lower half, but this order makes our lower half at least a little bit stronger (provided Tori starts hitting) and definitely more intimidating to opposing pitchers. It also gets a little bit of left/right/left/right that Wada likes so much, with batters 4-8 (and maybe even all the way to 1st) alternating back and forth.

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!

2015 Season Preview, Part 1: Infield

Today I’d like to start a four-part series about the Tigers and their upcoming season. This section will look at the infield. The next will look at the outfield and general offense. The second half of the series will look at starting pitchers and the relief squad. Without further ado, let’s dive right in to what is probably the most intriguing story at this spring’s camps.

Catchers

umenotsuruokaRookie Ryutaro Umeno carried the bulk of the load last season, playing in 92 games while starting nearly half the team’s games (60). He impressed fans with his strong defense (no passed balls allowed) and potential to hit the long ball (7 HR, including back-to-back jacks in July). However, his averaged was low all year and ended south of the Mendoza line (.197). He also played in very few games after August, giving the bulk of the playing time up to the veterans. Fatigue, loss of strength and inexperience did him in last year, but he has said that it is his goal to be a power-hitting catcher who can endure the rigors of an entire season, and he needs to do just that. The Japanese say “優勝チームに名捕手あり” (Championship teams have well known catchers.) If Umeno can be that for the Tigers, this team could win the championship this season and for years to come.

The other main options, Kazunari Tsuruoka and Akihito Fuji, were both brought in as free agents and are towards the end of their careers. They need to step aside and give Umeno the spotlight as well as any wisdom they may have to impart to the future starting catcher. Others playing catcher at camp include Takashi Shimizu and Shinya Azuhata.

First Basemen

The only one here, in reality, is 2014 RBI champion Mauro Gomez. He had a completely impressive first season, batting .283 and hitting 26 home runs and driving in 109 runs. He also played in all but one game, which he sat out because of heat stroke. However, the Tigers need to be ready for a potential drop off in production. He struck out 166 times (three away from being league worst) and definitely has some weaknesses that veteran pitchers will pick up on pretty quickly. Of course we hope he can be Randy Bass II, but the Tigers need to bring someone else up to step in, should the worst case scenario come true.

Others at camp playing first include Naoto Nishida (Okinawa) and Shinta Hifumi (Aki). Neither has much hype surrounding him, and there is always a possibility that Ryota Arai step in at first temporarily if the need arises.

Second Basemen

nishiokauemotoThis is where things heat up. Last season in April, Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Kosuke Fukudome collided in shallow right field, resulting in a long rehabilitation process for the starting second bagger. In his stead, young Hiroki Uemoto stepped his game up, hitting well over .300 through the first two months of the season, showing a mix of pop (7 HR) and speed (20 SB) while getting on base at a decent clip right through to the end of the season. Even when Nishioka was ready to come back, he could not displace Uemoto from second, and instead played third base (and not too  well, either). Heading into spring, Nishioka has made clear that he wants to play in the middle of the infield, not the hot corner. Since shortstop is set in stone, that leaves only second. Uemoto does not have the arm strength to play third (as seen towards the end of 2013), leaving the two men to fight for one spot. Nishioka has had an up-and-down career, both stats-wise and health-wise. He sounds like he is pushing himself to his max to regain the starting position, and I can honestly see him taking it this season and having a good one. However, parking Uemoto on the bench or using him sporadically or at a position that doesn’t suit him is also a bad idea. He has proven himself valuable to the team as well, and will not give up the starting job without a fight. Both men provide roughly the same numbers on the average, but I like Nishioka better because of his mood-making ability and aggressiveness. Let’s forget his bad years with the Marines, his “lost” years with the Twins and his injury-marred 2014. This year, Nishioka must be the leadoff hitter and spark the team’s offense.

Shortstop

This position has been settled since January 9, when the team announced that Takashi Toritani was giving up his MLB dreams to rejoin the team in 2015 and beyond. The iron man has played every inning the last 432 games (and appeared in 1466 straight) and looks to continue that streak. On one hand, it is great to have the captain back. He provides consistency at the plate and in the field almost like no other player in NPB. However, there is a slight catch-22 that comes with his ironman play. No one has played the position for years, and the young players hoping to eventually replace him will come in as 25-year old men with no game experience. I strongly believe this season, Toritani’s streak must come to an end. Whether he gives up later innings or whole games, he must give occasion to youngster Fumiya Hojoh to get on the field and make mistakes and grow stronger.

Third Basemen

ryotaaraiimanariAnother position battle takes place here, though perhaps not as dramatic as the one at second. With older brother gone, Ryota Arai looks to get the starting job at the hot corner. However, there’s another Ryota (Imanari) who is equally anxious to play every game. Both men have shown flashes of brilliance at times, but also have major weaknesses that stop them from being standout everyday players. Arai has a little more power than Imanari, but Imanari has a little more speed and perhaps a better glove. He has been known to make poor decisions at times, though, and needs to make wiser decisions on the field and base paths. I do not foresee either of these men getting the job outright. Since Arai is a righty and Imanari a lefty, they could alternate depending on the pitching matchups.

There is also grizzly veteran Kentaro Sekimoto, who came through in the clutch several times with timely pinch hits. He will likely not get more than a dozen or two starts, but will see time towards the end of close games, no doubt. Also waiting for a chance is Naomasa Yohkawa, who appears to have more power than any of the others ahead of him. Perhaps before season’s end, he will be in the mix as well.

Overall prognosis

The team has plenty of talent in the infield. There is also a decent mix of experience and youth, unproven as the young guys might be. In order for the team to be successful beyond 2015, it needs to find a balance between leaning heavily on the veterans and giving the youngsters a chance to prove themselves. The infield dirt at Koshien will see plenty of excitement this year. Stay tuned for the outfield report coming at a later date.

By the Numbers: Why the Tigers Lost

No one likes wallowing in the gloom of a postseason loss. For that reason, I will not dwell too much on the losses themselves, or the potential reality of losing Takashi Toritani to Major League Baseball. Instead, I will look at three striking numbers/factors that brought about Hanshin’s demise quickly in games 2-5. Setting Game 1 aside, the four straight losses were heart-wrenching to watch. What went wrong after the Giants sweep and a dominant victory in Game 1? I argue three things did the team in:

Game 2 starter Atsushi Nohmi held the Hawks to just 2 runs in 6 innings of work, but the first of those came on his fifth pitch of the game.

3) Early-game deficits – The SoftBank Hawks put up at least one run in each of their first three victories. Atsushi Nohmi was the quickest to surrender the lead, giving up a run on just five pitches. Shintaro Fujinami did not fare much better, following Nohmi’s pattern of hit-bunt-hit. Minoru Iwata actually gave up two runs in his first inning in Game 4, however, his took a little longer to manifest itself. More on that in the next section. The hitters did not do themselves any favors, though. In the first inning of games 2-5, they went 1-for-13 (.077) with 3 walks. The Hawks started their games going 8-for-19 (.421) with a walk. Randy Messenger was the lone pitcher to hold the Hawks off the board in the first inning, as he silenced them through at least six innings in each game he started. The bright side is that beyond the first inning, Nohmi and Iwata pitched extremely well. They were definitely not the reason the team lost the games. Another factor contributing to the losses was…

MurtonNipponSGame5

Murton gets caught stealing on a “phantom tag” (?) during the deciding Game 5.

2) Poor decisions on defense and the basepaths – Unfortunately, Yamato‘s excellent fielding throughout the playoffs was overshadowed by the poor decisions made by others. In Game 2 with the team down a run in the bottom of the seventh, Toritani led off with a hit. Perhaps trying to help out Gomez, the team’s RBI King and hero of Game 1, he tried to reach second after SoftBank catcher Hosokawa bobbled a Takeda pitch. The result was a fairly easy out, and instead of giving Gomez a chance to be the hero again, he was left to finish his at bat with the bases empty and one out. Flash forward to Game 3. A Fujinami wild pitch caromed off catcher Kazunari Tsuruoka‘s glove, and the runner on second ran aggressively enough to reach home safely. A quicker reaction to the loose ball could have prevented the run from scoring, or perhaps resulted in a throw-out at home. Game 4 saw a couple of miscues as well. First, in the opening frame, Iwata had given up a leadoff double to Yanagita. When Akashi attempted to bunt him over to third, Iwata fielded the ball, paused, and tried to get the lead runner out. He was late by a long shot. Had he been satisfied with getting the easy out at first base, the Hawks would have only gotten a single run that inning. Later in the game, with runners on first and second and two outs, Kosuke Fukudome slashed the Tigers’ first hit of the game, bringing home the tying run. Instead of stopping at first base, he tried to stretch his hit into a double. The result was an easy out and he was left laying on his back left of second base as the Hawks trotted off the field. Even later in the game, catcher Akihito Fujii tried to nail the lead runner at second on a sacrifice bunt. He was called safe (even though it appeared to be a missed call) and the Hawks had runners on first and second with just one out. Had he thrown to first, there would have been two outs and a runner on second. Instead, two batters later, Akira Nakamura rocked a walk-off home run to right. Finally in Game 5, two straight stolen base failures killed a potential Tiger rally. The first looked like a hit-and-run call that went wrong, and Matt Murton vehemently denied being tagged. Of course the call was not reversed. Uemoto followed that up with a stolen base failure of his own. Two base runners lost. And of course we can’t leave out the series-ending double play, one on which Tsuyoshi Nishioka was called for base runner interference. He has since admitted that he did it on purpose, hoping to keep the inning alive. Not the brightest move, but at least he was thinking. Regardless, the biggest culprit of all was…

Mauro Gomez strikes out in the second inning of Game 2. He hit 1-for-13 (.077) with 4 walks in the team’s 4 losses.

1) Lack of production with runners in scoring position – Unlike the Giants series, when the Tigers were knocking in almost all their base runners, they left too many men on base. The Hawks pitchers gifted them with multiple free passes (15, including 12 in the last two games), but as a team they managed a mere 4 runs in their losses, one of which was scored on a sacrifice fly. This means three men were knocked in on hits (and in one case, the runner was not even “in scoring position”), despite there being 17 at bats with players in scoring position over those four games. When you bat .176 in situations like that, it is no wonder the team lost four straight. The pitchers did their part, particularly in Games 2, 4 and 5. The bats that were strongest against the Giants (Gomez in particular) were silent in crucial situations in these four losses. Consider the data below:

Game Chances Hits Avg.
2 3 0 .000
3 2 1 .500
4 8 2 .250
5 4 0 .000
Total 17 3 .176

It was not an easy series to watch, as I said earlier, but I am still proud of the great showing the Tigers made in this year’s playoffs. No talk about a September slump anymore, no talk about never beating the Giants when it matters. The 2014 Tigers did an incredible job this year of giving their fans hope, excitement and fun. You can’t ask much more of them. Thank you, 2014 Tigers! See you next year! (The blog will continue through the off-season, just at a much slower pace.)

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Photo copyright Hanshin Tigers. Taken from Hanshin Tigers Fan page (Facebook)

Nippon Series Preview: Tigers vs. Hawks

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Scheduled Games & Possible Starters:

GAME 1: Saturday, October 25, 6:15 pm (Koshien Stadium):

Randy Messenger (13-10) vs. Jason Standridge (11-8)

GAME 2: Sunday, October 26, 6:15 pm (Koshien Stadium):

Minoru Iwata (9-8) vs. Kenji Ohtonari (3-1)

GAME 3: Tuesday, October 28, 6:30 pm (YafuOku Dome):

Shintaro Fujinami (10-7) vs. Shota Takeda (3-3)

GAME 4: Wednesday, October 29, 6:30 pm (YafuOku Dome):

Atsushi Nohmi (9-13) vs. Tadashi Settsu (10-8)

GAME 5*: Thursday, October 30, 6:30 pm:

Randy Messenger (13-10) vs. Kenichi Nakata (11-7)

GAME 6*: Saturday, November 1, 6:15 pm (Koshien Stadium):

Minoru Iwata (9-8) vs. Jason Standridge (11-8)

GAME 7*: Sunday, November 2, 6:15 pm:

Shintaro Fujinami (10-7) vs. Kenji Ohtonari (3-1)

* If necessary

Record This Season:

@ Koshien Stadium: Tigers 1, Hawks 1

@ YafuOku Dome: Tigers 1, Hawks 1

Total: Tigers 2, Hawks 2

Typical Postseason Lineups:

Hanshin Tigers

Name (Pos) AB R H RBI AVG
Tsuyoshi Nishioka (3B) 19 4 7 2 .368
Hiroki Uemoto (2B) 15 6 5 1 .333
Takashi Toritani (SS) 17 4 7 3 .412
Mauro Gomez (1B) 16 2 6 8 .375
Matt Murton (LF) 15 1 4 5 .267
Kosuke Fukudome (RF) 14 1 4 2 .286
A. Fujii / K. Tsuruoka (C) 15 0 1 0 .067
Yamato (CF) 13 1 3 0 .231
Pitcher/Pinch Hitter 13 2 3 0 .231

 

 

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks

Name (Pos) AB R H RBI AVG
Yuki Yanagita (CF) 25 3 7 3 .280
Kenji Akashi (2B) 23 4 7 0 .304
Seiichi Uchikawa (LF) 26 4 7 4 .269
Dae-Ho Lee (1B) 20 1 8 4 .400
Nobuhiro Matsuda (3B) 26 3 9 2 .346
Akira Nakamura (RF) 19 1 2 0 .105
Yuki Yoshimura (DH) 21 2 5 6 .238
Kenta Imamiya (SS) 22 1 3 1 .136
Toru Hosokawa (C) 14 1 6 1 .429


Top Players:

AVG: Tigers: Matt Murton (.338); Hawks: Yuki Yanagita (.317)

HR: Tigers: Mauro Gomez (26); Hawks: Dae-ho Lee (19)

SB: Tigers: Hiroki Uemoto (20); Hawks: Yuki Yanagita (33)

Wins: Tigers: Randy Messenger (13); Hawks: Jason Standridge, Kenichi Nakata (11)

Holds: Tigers: Shinobu Fukuhara (38); Hawks: Ryota Igarashi (44)

Saves: Tigers: Seung-hwan Oh (39); Hawks: Dennis Sarfate (37)

What to Watch for:

  • centralleaguechampsThe Tigers have gone 5-0-1 this postseason, and seem to be getting stronger with each game. After a power outage in the first two games against the Carp, the team compiled 21 runs in 4 games against the Giants.
  • The Hawks, meanwhile, have gone 3-3 in the postseason, advancing thanks to the one-game advantage they held over the Fighters because they clinched the regular season title. They won games 1, 4 and 6, and have not won back-to-back games since September 5-6 (unless you count the last regular season game and the first playoff game, which were 13 days apart).
  • Projected Game 1 starter Messenger is 0-2 with a 6.55 ERA against the Hawks this season. He lost on the road on May 23, giving up 3 ER in 6 IP, and then surrendered 5 ER in 5 IP at home on June 9. It wouldn’t have mattered, as his counterpart, former Tiger Jason Standridge, pitched a 3-hit complete game shutout that day.
  • Speaking of Standridge, he and close buddy Matt Murton face each other in the playoffs for the first time ever. It should be an exciting matchup. Watch for it in Game 1 and possibly later in the series as well!
  • Tigers closer Seung-hwan Oh may have to face fellow countryman Dae-Ho Lee in crucial situations as well. The Korean slugger has gone 8-for-25 in his career against Oh, including 1-for-1 this season.
  • The Tigers finished September/October with a 14-13 record, while the Hawks stumbled to a 9-14-1 record, including a 6-14 finish in their last twenty games.
  • Games 1-2, 6-7, which will be played at Koshien Stadium, will employ Central League rules, i.e. no designated hitter. This will not be a problem for the Tigers, as they have lived without a DH for much of the season. The Hawks, on the other hand, will send completely inexperienced pitchers to the plate for four games. They also will need to use strategy about when to pull their pitcher as they consider his turn at the plate.
  • Games 3-5 will be played at YafuOku Dome, and will allow both teams to use a designated hitter. The Tigers have plenty of hitters who can fill the role, though they are not accustomed to spending most of the game on the bench, waiting passively for their turn at the plate. Possible DH’s include Ryota Arai, Takahiro Arai, and possibly Ryota Imanari, if he is deemed healthy enough to play. They could also use Nishioka as the DH and put one of the Arai brothers (or Imanari) at third base.

My prediction: Tigers in 6