@ Swallows – March 29-31 – Split Down the Middle

0329-31Swallows

Game 4, Tuesday 3/29: Riding a two-game winning streak and bringing their best pitcher from last season to the mound, the Tigers hoped to keep the defending Central League champion Yakult Swallows winless on the season on Tuesday. Shintaro Fujinami gave up a hit and walk in the bottom of the first, but held the home team scoreless. His first run support came in the top of the second, when catcher Ryutaro Umeno knocked in Mauro Gomez and Takashi Toritani with a liner to right field. The Swallows got on the board in the bottom of the fourth after a Matt Hague error (pop fly that he couldn’t decide was his or Tori’s) eventually led to a run scoring on a one-out grounder to shortstop. The very next inning, though, after a Hague single and a Kosuke Fukudome walk, Gomez replicated his big bomb from the opening series with a monster shot into the left field stands.

Gomez shows a little love to the road crowd at Jingu by offering this souvenir to one lucky fan. (He'd repeat the feat the very next day!)

Gomez shows a little love to the road crowd at Jingu by offering this souvenir to one lucky fan. (He’d repeat the feat the very next day!)

Two innings later, his sacrifice fly to center gave him a total of four RBIs on the day. The only thing left to see in this game of errant pitchers (Swallows starter Tateyama walked 5 in 5 innings of work, Fujinami ended the day with 4, too, along with a hit batsman 2 wild pitches) was whether or not Fujinami would get the complete game, and how many pitches manager Kanemoto would let him throw. Turns out the magic number was 149 – which he reached in the ninth inning after walking two and giving up a run on a hit to center. Marcos Mateo walked the bases loaded before inducing a game-ending grounder to short. Final Score: Tigers 6, Swallows 2.

Game 5 – Wednesday 3/30: Last season, Minoru Iwata had a 3-1 record with a 2.52 ERA against the Swallows. On the other hand, Swallows starter was 2-2 with a 5.96 ERA against the Tigers. Given the teams’ records, this looked like a no-brainer. Who would have thought that Naruse would two-hit the Tigers through six? Who would have guessed Iwata would not finish six innings, giving up 7 runs and two home runs? The game was still a close one through five, however, as Iwata held tough in every inning, allowing two runs despite eleven base runners.

Matt Hague gets a small taste of what it's like to hit a home run in front of Tigers faithful fans. Wait 'til your first one at Koshien!

Matt Hague gets a small taste of what it’s like to hit a home run in front of Tigers faithful fans. Wait ’til your first one at Koshien!

Hague hit his first NPB home run in the fourth to tie the score at one, but the Swallows responded with one of their own in the bottom of the inning. In the sixth, Iwata fell apart, as did the defense behind him. Poor fielding by Shintaro Yokota, a bad throw by Toritani and a couple of misplayed balls by Gomez ensured the bases were kept warm by Swallows’ feet, while the hits kept coming. Naoto Tsuru relieved Iwata in the sixth but promptly walked one hitter and allowed a hit to the next. That brought home two runs, neither of which went against him, but he gave up another of his own in the seventh. After the contest was all but done, Gomez hit his second home run in two games, this one also scoring three runs, but it was too little, too late. Final Score: Swallows 8, Tigers 4.

Game 6 – Thursday 3/31: The rubber match of the series would have Opening Day starter Randy Messenger on the mound against newcomer Davies for the Swallows. Our newcomer welcomed theirs to NPB on pitch number one. Shun Takayama recorded his first career home run in the same ballpark that made him famous as a college ball player.

"Hi, I'm Shun Takayama. Your team tried to draft me but pulled the wrong ballot. Who are you?" "Kyle Davies, new pitcher for the Swallows." "Welcome to Japan. Welcome to NPB. Welcome to my bat!" KABOOM. First pitch home run.

“Hi, I’m Shun Takayama. Your team tried to draft me but pulled the wrong ballot. Who are you?”
“Kyle Davies, new pitcher for the Swallows.”
“Welcome to Japan. Welcome to NPB. Welcome to my bat!” KABOOM. First pitch home run.

A Yokota hit and Hague walk followed, and then a miscue on a pickoff throw to second meant runners on second and third with no outs. Gomez knocked in Yokota on a grounder to shortstop, and the visitors were off to an early lead. It was short-lived, though, as Messenger ran into trouble early as well. He walked one and allowed a hit as well, and a two-out, two-RBI double by Yuhei tied the score after one. Both pitchers settled in from there, despite giving each other second-inning hits, but in the bottom of the fifth, Randy sputtered again, giving up back-to-back doubles to Kawabata and Yamada, and the Swallows had their first lead of the game heading into the sixth. The Tigers roared back with a vengeance in the top of the seventh, though. Three straight singles by the top of the order, two straight walks from the cleanup men and a sacrifice fly by Toritani brought the lead to two, but the lead evaporated in the bottom of the inning. Three of our relievers got pounded around and the game remained knotted until the top of the eleventh, when poor control by Swallows reliever Furuno meant we only needed one hit to score a run – he walked Hague, Gomez and Toritani to bring home the leading run. But our closer had control issues of his own in the bottom of the eleventh – his third inning on the mound. A few hits and walks led to a nail-biting bases loaded, two out situation. And a full count. Mateo induced a grounder to short and the game was guaranteed to go the distance – and would take over five hours to be completed. Not much of a threat in the top of the twelfth, with Keisuke Kanoh‘s lead off pinch hit single being followed by three straight outs. Daiki Enokida came in to ensure the tie by striking out two and inducing a pop-up to right after allowing an infield hit. Final Score: Tigers 6, Swallows 6.

Series Notes: The first demotion of the season took place between Wednesday and Thursday’s games. Tsuru got sent down to the farm and Kazuyuki Kaneda took his place on the roster. He was the last man on the bench in Thursday’s game… Gomez’s two consecutive games with 3-run home runs gives him the early league lead in RBIs. He is also tied for tops with 3 homers… Hague’s home run came with his mother and younger brother watching in the stands. The Tigers continue their road trip in Yokohama over the weekend. Koshien Stadium hosted the high school national spring tournament, forcing the Tigers to the road. Because of no rainouts this year, the tournament actually ended today. Still, the Tigers will not host their Koshien opener until April 8, when they host the Hiroshima Carp.

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T-Ray is the founder, chief writer and Junior Executive Vice President of Hanshin Tigers English News (H-TEN). Find him on Twitter @thehanshintiger.