Since the all-star break, the Hanshin Tigers are playing much better ball. They are 11-6 with a run differential of +13. Before the break they were 41-42 and got outscored by 86 runs. The team has won all but one of their six series (losing two of three to the Swallows at home), and started their road trip 4-2. This week they got a little respite, playing a home series against the last-place Chunichi Dragons at “home” in the cozy confines of Kyocera Dome in Osaka. Let’s look at how they did.
Game 1: Veteran Atsushi Nohmi came in on shorter rest than usual, but also with the confidence of three strong starts in a row. The bats rewarded his 1-2-3 first inning with a barrage of hits. Mauro Gomez extended his RBI streak to 6 games, and Ryota Arai continued his magic with the bases loaded, coaxing a grounder down the right field line for a 2-run double. Those bats then fell silent most of the rest of the way, getting just two more hits. They didn’t need any more, though, as Nohmi cruised through eight innings, allowing just one run on six hits (and no walks). Seung-hwan Oh closed it off with little drama, allowing a leadoff single but preserving the win, giving Nohmi his league-tying 9th victory of the year. Final Score: Tigers 3, Dragons 1.
Game 2: I was able to take this one in live from the third base side, four rows behind the protective nets. Today’s starter, Randy Messenger, pitched on just 4 days’ rest (presumably to set up a chance to start next week agains the Giants) but looked in control early. He allowed just a single in his first four innings of work, and did a great job at the dish as well. In the third inning, catcher Akihito Fujii hit his first triple in four years, and Randy cashed him in with his first RBI of the year. Both those terms will be key later in the game. (Apparently Randy said about his RBI, “Fujii-san looked really tired standing there on 3rd after his triple so I wanted to get him back to the bench as soon as I could.”) In the next inning, Matt Murton‘s double to right-center looked to score Kosuke Fukudome, but the rally from the field beat the 38-year old veteran to the plate. Inning over. Then unfortunately, the big import hurler got into trouble in the fifth, loading the bases on three singles. He escaped the inning with two strikeouts, but his pitch count was quickly mounting. The sixth inning saw the Dragons quickly put two guys on base, and a grounder to third could not be converted into an inning-ending double play. The score was tied, and with Randy due up in the bottom of the sixth, his night on the mound was over. Once again, a no-decision for Messenger. The score remained locked until the bottom of the eighth. With two outs, Takashi Toritani hit a double, and late-inning replacement Katsuhiko Saka (.150 on the year, no RBIs) came to the plate with the game on the line. No pinch hitter? No need tonight! The seldom-used Saka found the left-center gap perfectly, scoring Toritani and getting him to third base. Another rare triple! Another rare “first RBI of the year!” Fukudome added an insurance run with a double, and Oh came in with another two-run lead. Three up, three down, game over. Final Score: Tigers 3, Dragons 1.
Game 3: To pull this one off, the Tigers faced three obstacles: Fukudome was given the day off, seldom-used Takumi Akiyama was on the mound, and they were facing a pitcher against whom they were 0-4 so far this year. Fortunately, Gomez provided them with an early run, leading off the second with a solo shot to left center. For his part, Akiyama kept the Dragons in their lair through six, allowing just three hits (sounds a little like a Suguru Iwazaki outing, doesn’t it?) but unfortunately gave up a run in the seventh off a walk and a double. Dragons starter Ohno had our guys’ number again tonight, allowing only an infield hit to our Japanese batters. The biggest chance of the night to slay their fire-breather came in the bottom of the seventh, when we loaded the bases with no outs. But aces are aces for a reason, and he managed to retire three straight and get out of the jam. We lucked out when Matayoshi trotted out in our half of the eighth. Our bats have haunted him all year! He got two quick outs, and it looked like he might get through the inning, but Keisuke Kanoh smoked a full count pitch into the left field bleachers. Then Gomez and Murton got back-to-back hits. Shunsuke walked on four pitches. Ryota Imanari knocked in two runs in an “off the pitcher, off the second baseman” single. Our closer shut them down in the ninth (allowing two base runners) and our first series sweep since interleague play was complete! Final Score: Tigers 4, Dragons 1.
Series Notes: Messenger, who turned 34 on Thursday, racked up his 1,000th career strikeout (MLB – 120, NPB – 880) in the sixth inning of Wednesday’s game. His season ERA (3.00) is nearly half what it was when he got sent to the minors (5.88) on May 11. Still his record is a disappointing 7-9 due to a lack of run support… Oh’s save on Thursday was his league-leading 35th on the year. Wednesday’s save was the 350th save of his career (Korea – 277, NPB – 73). Said Oh, “It has no real meaning. I’m just glad we won and I was able to pitch a clean inning.” Congratulations… Murton’s hit streak reached 9 games on Thursday as he stroked 4 singles, and his .296 average is good for 6th in the Central… Tigers legend Gene Bacque also had a birthday during this series, turning 78 on Wednesday. Happy Birthday to the only foreigner in NPB history to win the Eiji Sawamura Award (1964)… With the Giants and Swallows winning two of three each, the Tigers were only able to stretch their lead by a game. However, they have built up some great momentum heading into Tokyo (Jingu Stadium) where they will face the Yakult Swallows over the weekend. Here are the current standings: