They should not be here. And yet here they are. After last Sunday’s loss to the Carp in a game that could have clinched third place, the Tigers were left to hope the lowly Chunichi Dragons would knock off the hungry and surging Carp on Wednesday night to break the tie for third. With 50-year old Masahiro Yamamoto on the mound. Against MLB-bound Kenta Maeda. There’s a reason the game is played on the field and not just on paper and in the blogosphere. The Dragons scored three clutch runs in the top of the 8th against reliever (2014 Rookie of the Year) Daichi Ohsera, and limited the Carp to one hit all night. For the second straight year, a final-day Carp loss gave the Hanshin Tigers a higher position in the standings than they deserved.
So off they go to Tokyo for a best-of-three against the second place Yomiuri Giants. In thirteen regular season games in the EGG this season, the Tigers are 2-11. Against projected starters Miles Mikolas and Tomoyuki Sugano, the Tigers are 1-6. This one could be a quick exit for the men in pinstripes.
Do we not have two aces of our own, both of whom are reasonably well rested and capable of shutting down the not-so-great Giant bats? Do we have anything to lose, coming into a series we thought we’d be watching on TV? Don’t we want to atone for the poor showing against our 80-year long rivals this year?
There’s a reason the game is played on the field and not just on paper and in the blogosphere.
Here’s how the matchup looks on paper. Note: Neither team has officially announced its starters for the games. Much of this is speculation on my part, and could very possibly be incorrect!
Game 1: Saturday, October 10, 2015, 2:00 pm
Shintaro Fujinami (Season: 14-7, 2.40 ERA; vs. Giants: 2-4, 2.48 ERA)
vs. Miles Mikolas (Season: 13-3, 1.92 ERA; vs. Tigers 3-0, 1.50 ERA)
Key Player: Takashi Toritani, who has yet to register a hit (0-13) against the Giants’ import pitcher this season. Winning without the leadoff hitter reaching base regularly is extremely hard, especially against a pitcher who has won his last 11 decisions.
Game 2: Sunday, October 11, 2015, 2:00 pm
Randy Messenger (Season: 9-12, 2.97 ERA; vs. Giants: 2-4, 3.57 ERA)
vs. Tomoyuki Sugano (Season: 10-11, 1.91 ERA; vs. Tigers: 3-1, 1.18 ERA)
Key Player: Kosuke Fukudome, who is hitting .600 against Sugano and is the only Tigers hitter who has had success against the mighty righty. With run support always scarce when Messenger takes the mound, the Tigers will need a big hit or two from their best left-handed bat.
Game 3 (if necessary): Monday, October 12, 2015, 2:00 pm
Minoru Iwata (Season: 8-10, 3.22 ERA; vs. Giants: 0-3, 4.98 ERA)
vs. Aaron Poreda (Season: 8-8, 2.94 ERA; vs. Tigers 5-2, 2.44 ERA)
Key Players: Ryutaro Umeno and Iwata, for two reasons. First, because Umeno seems to be Iwata’s main catcher this year, and it will be up to them to come through in this series-deciding game. Umeno will need to call a shrewd game and hold the Giants bats to a minimum. Iwata will have to do much better here than he did in the regular season against this team. Second, because Umeno will give us one more threat at the plate than we usually have. In a game where one run could make all the difference, our young catcher has the chance to prevent enemy scores behind the dish and give us extra scores with his stick.
Lineup Notes: Tigers closer Seung-hwan Oh is not expected to suit up for the series. His injured thigh has not shown enough progress for him to throw at full strength. Second baseman Hiroki Uemoto has been practicing with the first squad and is expected to start at second base. Infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka will continue to see pinch hitting duties through the end of 2015. Left fielder Matt Murton will be a game day decision, as the big toe on his right foot is swollen, an injury that has nagged him for some time now.
Undoubtedly the Tigers are going up against strong pitchers, all of whom have great success against our bats. Our three pitchers have shown a penchant for giving up the long ball to their star players. Still, these are the same players who took four straight in Tokyo last postseason. Though the mental makeup of both teams is different than it was a year ago, the playoffs literally are a new season and a chance for underdogs to upset favorites.
Bottom Line: Still, the realist in me can’t help but think this one will be over in two games, with the home team prevailing. It hurts to say this, as nearly everyone reading this is cheering for the Tigers and hoping somehow this awful September can be redeemed with a series win against our arch-nemesis. As much as I want the upset to happen, I cannot objectively look at these teams and the seasons they’ve had and predict anything other than…