Before you get too hung up on my words, keep in mind I am a fan, and I love the Tigers. Take it with a grain of salt, please.
Last time I spoke harsh words about this club, they had just beaten the Yomiuri Giants 4-2 to extend their record to 5-2 and remain in first place in the Central League. At the time, things seemed to be going well, and a few readers said I should calm down, and that the season was still young and they were still sitting in first.
They have since gone 10-17, and now sit half a game behind the Hiroshima Carp for last place. I’m not going to say “I told you so” to anyone, but obviously this team was not as good as their record told us through 7 games, and perhaps the current 15-19 record is more indicative of how bad the team is compared with the rest of the league.
There are numbers that show just how bad the team is – their league-worst .227 batting average and 3.97 ERA the most obvious – but let’s look beyond digits and talk about other issues plaguing the team.
First and most obvious is team management and coaching. Fans nationwide will agree that Yutaka Wada needs to be canned, and the sooner, the better. He has no personality and more often than not, states the obvious after games: “We need to hit better in clutch situations.” REALLY? Casual fans could tell me that! He puts up lofty goals at the start of the season like “We’re going to try to steal 100 bases as a team this year” but then calls for sacrifice bunts when his speedsters are on first. So far, the team has all of 11 stolen bases in 34 games – a pace of 46 for the season. For the record, that’s 9 fewer than last season, when the team finished dead last in the category. Wada has also tinkered with the lineup – 5 different men have played center field so far, and 3 different players have batted leadoff – but apparently none of that has brought about the desired results. Does Wada not have any other tricks up his sleeve besides the sacrifice bunt that leads nowhere? It has been proven that bunts are not the answer to better scoring! Time to move on, Wada.
Second, I will point the finger where no one else seems to dare – at the team captain, Takashi Toritani. This is the guy who wanted to try his luck in the majors this offseason but came crawling back to the team, mumbling something about wanting to win it all with the Tigers and helping the young guys experience a league championship – something he did in 2005 as a youngster. I say “crawling back” because he received no official offers from major league teams, and perhaps they knew what they were doing. After all, Tori does not boast much pop in his bat or speed, and at age 33 (for another month, anyway), will continue to lose defensive range with every passing month. The one thing he has going for him is his ironman streak, which reached 1,500 games today. That’s good for third in NPB history (behind Sachio Kinugasa and Tomoaki “Aniki” Kanemoto) and certainly is impressive, but at what expense does it come? He clearly is not playing well this year, and is perhaps doing more damage to the team right now than he is helping. Yes, he has hit a few balls well in recent days, but none have resulted in hits, and his average now sits at a paltry .235. He has made some fine defensive plays this year, but has also made a lot of mistakes, and cannot get to a lot of balls that he used to reach in his younger days. And how about that leadership? Who’s he talking to? Who’s he coaching or advising? Is he the one heading to the mound to talk to the pitcher after a big hit? Nope, that would be third baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Tori-san, when are you going to step up and LEAD the team? Perhaps you need to lay down your pride and sit out a game or two if you’re playing hurt. None of this “１試合でも多く続けられるように頑張ります” (I’ll do my best to be able to continue playing as many in a row as I can) nonsense! If you’re not doing your job, man up and step down! Help the next generation get some game experience and be able to replace you in a few years when you retire!
Third and finally, no one has stepped up. Last season, all 4 foreigners carried the team to second place and the Nippon Series. Without career years from Randy Messenger and Matt Murton and impressive first years from Mauro Gomez and Seung-hwan Oh, the team would not have made the playoffs. This year, Messenger and Murton have started out slowly, and Gomez has not found his power stroke yet. The problem is, the rest of the team has not stepped up at all! Only Nishioka has performed at a higher level than last year (which he missed most of due to injury). The rest – Hiroki Uemoto and Yamato in particular – have regressed! For this team to succeed, it needs the local boys to produce well and become the foundation of the team. Right now, no one of any nationality is taking the reins.
Honestly, sitting in last place feels about right. No one is playing well, only twice all year has the team produced a convincing win (outscoring the opponent by 3 or more). On the other hand, they have lost by 3 or more runs an embarrassing twelve times! The pitchers are getting tagged for hit after hit. The Tigers have gone 10 straight games without reaching double-digits in hits, but in that span have given up double digits five times. This does not look like a team about to “Go for the Top as One”… but as a fan, I still hold out hope that at some point, they can turn things around and contend for the playoffs (and the pennant, and the Nippon Ichi) come October. Come on, Tigers!