The losing streak was at four. First place was far in the distance, second was looking unlikely, and it seemed like a matter of time before third would slip away as well. The Tigers were back to being a .500 team and were heading into enemy territory, where they had not fared well. Then the news hit: manager Yutaka Wada would not receive a contract offer for 2016. How would the team respond? Could they take the series in Hiroshima and assure themselves of a playoff spot?
Game 1: Facing a right-handed pitcher meant the lineup would be loaded as much as possible with left-handed hitters. This meant Ryota Imanari would get the start at third, and in a surprise move, Katsuhiko Saka started at second. Imanari made the best of his playing time, hitting a single in his first at bat. Veteran Kosuke Fukudome would bring him home on his twentieth home run of the campaign. Two innings later, Matt Murton‘s ground ball found the gap between short and third, scoring Fukudome, and the TIgers were off to the races. Starter Atsushi Nohmi looked in control right from the start of this one, pitching through a few jams and never surrendering a run in his seven innings of work. Set-up man Shinobu Fukuhara and closer Seung-hwan Oh completed the shutout, and the Tigers took the opener with relative ease. Final Score: Tigers 3, Carp 0.
Game 2: Takashi Toritani came ready to play in this one. He led off with a single, advanced on a grounder and scored on a Mauro Gomez single, giving the Tigers a much-needed 1-0 lead. Minoru Iwata put the Carp in a bad position right from the start, striking out the side in the first inning and pitching shutout ball through four. However, in the fifth he got into some trouble, giving up back-to-back RBI singles with two outs. With their backs against the wall, the Tigers cowered in the corner, managing just one more hit the rest of the way – another single by Toritani, this one in the ninth inning after Carp ace Kenta Maeda toyed with the cats for seven innings of two-hit ball beyond the first inning. Final Score: Carp 2, Tigers 1.
Game 3: Another day, another opponent ace, another struggle to score runs. This one started similarly enough to Saturday’s tilt, with Toritani reaching on a walk, advancing to second on a bunt, and scoring on a Fukudome single. Coming off a great start against the Giants, sophomore hurler Suguru Iwazaki couldn’t have fared worse. He gave up a lead-off home run, then continued to be pummeled for the rest of his start, which did not last the first inning. The Carp tagged him for three runs on five hits in two-thirds of an inning, easily the worst and shortest start of Iwazaki’s career. The relief corps kept the team in the game, though, as recently recalled Naoto Tsuru and Tsuyoshi Ishizaki took the team through six innings without any further damage. In the top of the seventh, pinch hitter Kentaro Sekimoto drove in a run, reducing the deficit to one, but a Fukudome double play ended the rally. The Tigers had an even more golden chance in the eighth, as they loaded the bases with no outs, but two infield fly balls and a strikeout meant no runs scored and the lead remained with the home team. In fact, they tacked two more on Fukuhara in the bottom of the inning, and ran away with the rubber match. Final Score: Carp 5, Tigers 2.
Series Notes: Fukudome’s milestone home run gave him twenty for the first time since 2006, when he starred for the Chunichi Dragons… Infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka (elbow) made his long-awaited return to the team on Friday, pinch hitting in the ninth. He popped out to third… Oh is reported to have pulled a leg muscle and has been deactivated. Ishizaki has taken his place on the roster, but rumor has it that Nelson Perez will make his debut with the parent club on Monday against the Giants. Oh’s injury allows for Perez to be the fourth active foreigner on the roster… Sunday’s loss mathematically eliminates the possibility of the Tigers winning the pennant. With just four games remaining, they need all wins, combined with all losses for the Giants, to take second place.