August is usually a fair barometer for how the Hanshin Tigers’ season will develop. Typically the team gets one series at Koshien Stadium to start the month, and one at the end to finish it. The rest, they travel to nearly all Central League parks, playing a few interspersed “home” series at Kyocera Dome (home to the Orix Buffaloes of the Pacific League). This weekend saw the Tigers visiting second place Yakult Swallows at Jingu Stadium, a park known as a hitters’ park. Could they hold or build on their 2.5 game lead?
Game 1: The game started with rainy conditions. Young ace Shintaro Fujinami did not adjust well to the conditions, struggling with his control right from the outset. Through three innings, he walked five batters, allowing runs on a bases-loaded walk in the second and another the next inning on a wild pitch. This was the first game in 10 that the Tigers did not open the scoring. However, rookie Taiga Egoshi evened the score for Fujinami in the top of the 3rd frame with a solo shot to left. After the Swallows took the lead again, the bottom of the order (Kazunari Tsuruoka and Fujinami himself) came through with back-to-back RBI doubles, and the Tigers had a comfortable lead. The lead got pushed to three on a Mauro Gomez bloop single to right in the seventh, and was extended even further on a Ryota Imanari double in the eighth and a Kosuke Fukudome single in the ninth. Fujinami left after the seventh and 122 pitches. He settled in nicely after the third, not walking anymore batters and allowing just 1 hit. Despite some shaky work from the bullpen, the Swallows managed just one more run the rest of the way, and Seung-hwan Oh struck out the side to escape a jam he did not create himself. Final Score: Tigers 7, Swallows 3.
Game 2: The Tigers gave Minoru Iwata ten days’ rest in order to let him pitch in a park at which he has excelled. The strategy did not pay dividends on this night. Control was an issue in his 5 innings of work, in which he allowed 4 runs (two on wild pitches, two on groundouts). For their part, the Tigers got plenty of men on base (15) but scored just one measly run on an Egoshi grounder. The bullpen blew things up in the eighth, allowing 5 runs (Akira Iwamoto 3 and Kazuya Takamiya 2) before recording an out. It had been a long while since the last Tigers blowout loss, but it still felt the same. The winning streak is over at six games. Final Score: Swallows 9, Tigers 1.
Game 3: Three pitches. That’s all it took for the Tigers to take a 1-0 lead as Takashi Toritani hit his first leadoff home run in 5 years. He gave the Tigers the lead, then took it away with a muffed grounder in the bottom of the third. However, with runners on the corners in the top of the sixth, Fukudome hit his 17th home run of the year, and the party was on. Keisuke Kanoh added an RBI double in the top of the seventh, increasing the lead to four. For his part, starter Suguru Iwazaki did almost exactly what he did his last time out – six solid innings, one unearned run and just three hits. Fukudome added another RBI in the eighth with a double. The ninth brought about a huge chance, with the bases loaded and no one out. However, Toritani hit into a 6-2-5 double play, and Yamato flied out to right. The relievers allowed a few base runners in the last three frames but nothing like Saturday’s disaster. Final Score: Tigers 6, Swallows 1.
Series Notes: Murton’s 9-game hitting streak ended on Friday… Fujinami became the first pitcher since 2001 (Daisuke Matsuzaka) to record double-digit wins in his first three seasons out of high school. He also has won all 11 games in his career in which he has gotten at least one RBI… Through Friday, the Tigers were also undefeated (10-0) when Egoshi got an RBI in a game. He drove in the lone run on Saturday on a ground ball, and the team lost badly. Since it wasn’t an RBI hit, is the streak still in tact? I say no… Yamato collected 4 hits on Friday, his second modasho of the season. He then got another on Sunday with three more hits. His average is once again over the .200 mark – hopefully for good this time… Iwamoto got sent down to the farm after his implosion on Saturday. Kazuyuki Kaneda got recalled for the first time since April. He did not see any action on Sunday… Here are the standings as of the end of play this week: