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 – July 10-12, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the standings after all the action on Sunday.

15-7-12 Standings

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

Book Review – Slugging it Out in Japan

sluggingTo purchase and read this book, I had to put away my dislike of the Yomiuri Giants. After all, the subject and co-author starred for them during the most interesting years of my Hanshin Tigers’ history. He was a perfect foil to then-star Tiger Randy Bass, who enamored the fanatics at Koshien from the time he arrived in Japan.

Contrary to Ba-su sama, Warren Cromartie spent many turbulent, inconsistent years with the club before he finally accepted his fate and position within the team, thriving at last only when he started to genuinely like Japan. While other Robert Whiting (co-author) books are chalk full of anecdotes about the lives of several players, this one focuses exclusively on the man they called ‘Cro. This allows for a much deeper, personal and gripping read than the others Whiting penned, which technically could be enjoyed a chapter at a time, and put away for weeks or months without fear of breaking the flow of the story.

Cromartie was born and raised in Miami Beach, Florida. His rough childhood seems to have shaped his stoic, rebellious demeanor right through to this day. He played several years in the Montreal Expos organization before taking up the Yomiuri Giants on their generous offer, but only after the Expos shafted him and the American (SF) Giants reneged on an offer they had informally made him.

This book takes us through Cromartie’s dislike of camp, struggles with living arrangements, disgust with Korakuen Stadium locker rooms, beefs with coaches and teammates (he particularly mocks then-pretty boy Tatsunori Hara), and his love and respect for Sadaharu Oh, who actually gave him private hitting lessons when he was struggling early on. It also opens many readers’ eyes to the racism he faced as a black man in Tokyo as well as on a team whose ownership and upper management refused to acknowledge his contributions to championship teams.

It also pointed out to me that Cro was (is?) a skilled musician who had a band in Japan, appeared on TV, and even practiced drums and recorded an album while sitting out an injury late in his Japanese baseball career.

Most of all, reading this book endeared me to this fireball of a man, who holds back no punches (literally), criticizing even himself at times. It gave me a clearer look into what American baseball players in Japan experienced and thought back in the 80s. I recommend this book to everyone, even my fellow Tigers fans. Trust me, there’s lots of good in this book, and Randy Bass makes a few appearances as well.

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Book Review – Kyojin-Hanshin Discourse

kyojinhanshinron

If only there were more books like this. If only I had been a fan of Japanese baseball when these two faced each other. If only I had had time to actually finish reading the book! (It was a loaner from the library, and I will take it out again after I’ve read a handful of other books on my list.)

Kyojin-Hanshin Discourse is simply a guided discussion between two longtime rivals and legends of their respective teams. Giants’ ace Suguru Egawa (1979-1987) and Tigers’ cleanup hitter Masayuki Kakefu (1974-1988) sit down and talk about a great variety of topics, including the circumstances surrounding their respective drafting experience (quite different from one another), first appearances on their teams, major accomplishments, personal showdowns, retirements, post-retirement years, and what they would do if they were managers of their respective teams. Of course, the thread that ties the whole thing together is the great tradition that both teams have, and the differing philosophies that make them so endearing to generations of fans.

egawakakefuThis book is written in such a way that the players talk mostly uninterrupted about their playing days, memories of each other, and so on. An interviewer (facilitator?) occasionally breaks the dialogue up with a question, correction or change of topic. Otherwise, it feels as though you got to sit down at the booth right behind two great baseball players (and friends?) at a family restaurant as they talked about baseball. Who could ask for anything more?

I can honestly say that this book has helped inspire me to learn more about the history of this game, particularly of these two teams, and of course mostly of the Hanshin Tigers. I’d love to read a similar book between other rivals or even teammates. Suggestions include: Yutaka Enatsu and Sadaharu Oh, Akinobu Okada and Tatsunori Hara, Randy Bass and Warren Cromartie. Got any others you’d like to read about? (I personally want to write one of these with Gene Bacque!)

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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.