While sweeping the Lotte Marines would have been ideal, winning the last two of the series was enough to give the Tigers a little momentum and confidence heading into the hardest part of the interleague schedule. They would host the first place Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters over the weekend, and are scheduled to wrap up with two road series, one against the defending champions and the other against their cross-town rivals. The team with the worst batting average in Nippon pro baseball was slated to face two of the best pitchers in the Pacific right from the start – Shohei Ohtani and Mitsuo Yoshikawa. Would they be able to muster enough offense to keep the momentum going? Or would they sputter once again and fall back down in the standings?
Game 1: While they had their best pitcher going on Saturday (after Friday was rained out), we had our resurgent ace, Randy Messenger, to combat him. It truly was a pitching duel for the ages, as both hurlers recorded strikeout after strikeout, and blank inning after blank inning. The lone exception was in the fourth, when the Tigers managed three hits (Kohei Shibata, Matt Murton and an RBI single by Hiroki Uemoto), eking a run out after strikeouts by mashers Mauro Gomez and Kosuke Fukudome threatened to end the inning without a score. Ohtani was his usual self the rest of the way, going seven strong and allowing just the single run while striking out 11. However, our hero today was the big man, Messenger. He threw eight shutout innings, striking out eight and only allowing two runners to reach second base (one on his own fielding error in the fifth). In the hero interview (click here for audio), he made sure to give credit to his fielders – Gomez made a nice diving catch to record a double play in the 2nd, and Uemoto flipped the ball to first with his glove to nail the runner in time in the 6th. Closer Seung-hwan Oh came in to finish the game, and showed no signs of being rattled by last week’s nightmare. He struck out the side. The Tigers are back at .500! Final Score: Tigers 1, Fighters 0.
Game 2: Though he recorded a hit on Saturday, the talk of the press still surrounded Murton and rumors of signing a sixth foreigner and shipping Matt down to the farm. He came out on fire in this one, hitting a drive to right field in the first. He would score on a Gomez double, and the Tigers had an early lead once again. Starter Atsushi Nohmi gave up a home run in the second to the Fighters’ pipsqueak Oka, and the game was tied until the fifth. Once again, Murton came through, this time with a rare hit to left field, scoring Takashi Toritani. The Tigers accomplished a rare feat (for them), scoring in three consecutive innings, as pinch-hitter Keisuke Kanoh got a long-awaited RBI hit in the sixth, and Murton capped off his strong night with an RBI double to left (again!) in the seventh. Despite scares from the bullpen, Oh once again closed things down in the ninth with another clean inning, and the Tigers went over .500 for the first time since April 5th. Final Score: Tigers 4, Fighters 1.
Game 3: Due to inclement weather today, this game will not be played until sometime next week (June 15-18).
Series Notes: Since allowing a hit in the top of the 10th against the Marines on June 3, Oh has mowed down 11 straight batters, 8 on strikeouts. He has 3 saves and a win on this Tigers 4-game win streak. In just 1.5 seasons with the team, he has racked up 55 saves and is now 4th all-time in team history. Apparently the “stone-faced Buddha” does not get rattled too easily… Messenger struck out Fighters pitcher Ohtani in all three of his plate appearances. The pitcher everyone anticipated seeing hit, failed to make any connection at all… The latest reports indicate that Ryota Arai is ready to join the team on Tuesday, and that Kentaro Sekimoto and Tsuyoshi Nishioka are doing what they can to rehabilitate. The former will likely be back much sooner than the latter. No timetable has beenset for either player, as of now… Despite having the worst batting average (.235) and second-worst ERA (3.59) in NPB over the course of the whole season, the Tigers have the 4th best average (.268) and top ERA (2.47) during interleague play. Perhaps they are heating up as summer comes along… The Pacific League has been flexing its muscle during this mini-season, going 35-32-3 so far, and will play the bulk of the interleague schedule at home. Owning the best record among CL teams has benefited the Tigers immensely in the standings, as seen below. They are actually just one strong series away from taking first place… The team will travel to Fukuoka tomorrow to play three games at Yafuoku Dome, then come back to Kansai and play three more at Kyocera Dome against host Orix Buffaloes. No more rainouts until regular league play resumes.