At long last, the Hanshin Tigers would make their 2016 Koshien Stadium debut. The season was off to a decent start, all without having played on their true home turf yet. Could they take the momentum from their successful road trip – and dominant win against the Giants Thursday – back to their “Sacred Ground”?
Game 13 – Friday 4/8: The game started off on the wrong foot for starter Atsushi Nohmi. Four hits to the first five batters resulted in two runs scored, and the home nine (and crowd) got the wind knocked out of them. But making his first start of the season, Taiga Egoshi blasted one into the left field stands to cut the lead in half. Both pitchers settled in after the first, though. Nohmi went another six innings without allowing a run, while Carp starter Yokoyama gave up just one hit through the next six. The dearth of production continued through the top of the ninth for both teams, as relievers on both sides shut down their opponents’ bats. It would be up to Carp closer Nakazaki to shut the door with three outs. He would only register one. Kosuke Fukudome singled. Mauro Gomez hit one up the middle. Takashi Toritani hit a dribbler that was slightly misplayed and errantly towards first. When (Takahiro) Arai could not keep it in his glove, pinch runner Fumiya Araki scampered home to tie the game. Now with one out and runners on first and third, all the Tigers needed from Tsuyoshi Nishioka was a ball hit deep enough to score Yamato. He delivered in fine fashion, driving one to the right-center gap. The hero interview was a touching one in which Nishioka teared up, thinking about the past two years when he was unable to contribute due to injury. If the jubilant embrace between him and manager Tomoaki Kanemoto didn’t move the hearts of Tigers fans, the hero interview certainly did. Final Score: Tigers 3, Carp 2.
Game 14 – Saturday, 4/9: Never before in his career had Yuta Iwasada delivered two straight quality performances. Last weekend, he humiliated the DeNA BayStars lineup, punishing them for 12 strikeouts over 7 shutout innings. He brought his A-game again this Saturday, pounding the strike zone once again, and recording 12 strikeouts through six innings. Meanwhile, Taiga the Tiger struck again – his fourth homer in four games – with a 2-run blast to dead center in the fourth inning off wily veteran Hiroki Kuroda. It was all the offense the Tigers would produce all afternoon, and it looked to be enough, given how Iwasada was pitching. However, he ran into trouble in the eighth. The first run came on a grounder to second, which allowed the runner on third to score. Iwasada was switched out with a runner on second and two outs. Unfortunately, Shinobu Fukuhara was unable to hold the lead for the Tigers, and the Tigers were unable to get the go-ahead run in the bottom halves of their innings, and the game went to extras. With Fukuhara and closer Marcos Mateo already spent, the man deemed fit for the job was Daiki Enokida, who had been perfect through six games this year. Saturday would be the end of his magical start, though, as three consecutive hits allowed resulted in two runs for the visitors. Kazuyuki Kaneda could not stop the bleeding either, as he walked three straight batters without recording a single out, and when all the damage had been done and the dust settled, the lead was four runs. Final Score: Carp 6, Tigers 2.
Game 15 – Sunday, 4/10: Once again, the game got off on the wrong foot for the Tigers. Making his first start at Koshien in 14 years (!), Kyuji Fujikawa walked the first hitter and gave up a two-run blast to the second. Though his pitch count stayed high the rest of the way, he held his own over the next three innings. The Tigers squandered an opportunity in the second with runners on first and second, but replicated the situation the very next inning. Who else would come through but Taiga? His RBI single broke the bagel string that started after his homer on Saturday, and after a near-homer by Fukudome, first baseman (!) Ryota Imanari smacked a single up the middle to tie the game. Nishioka kept the crowd singing Rokko Oroshi with another hit up the middle, and Fumiya Hojoh sliced another single to right, giving the Tigers a 2-run lead. Unfortunately, the Carp returned the singles parade on the Tigers in the fifth, with four straight hitters spraying the ball to all fields, evening the score at four. That streak of singles was broken… by a double, returning the two-run lead to the Carp and knocking Kyuji from the game. Akifumi Takahashi was called on to put out the fire, but a lunging batter landed a hit down the right field line, scoring a seventh run for the visitors. They got an eighth run one inning later on three straight hits allowed by Kazuya Takamiya. Despite chances in several innings, the Tigers could not put a dent in the lead – Umeno struck out looking to end the fifth, Egoshi to end the sixth and Umeno again (swinging) to end the seventh – all with runners on base. Enokida recovered nicely from his Saturday meltdown, mowing through six hitters to keep the score the same until the ninth inning. Oh, the ninth inning. Egoshi slid head first into first to record an infield hit to lead off the inning. Fukudome moved him over with a single of his own, and Imanari took one for the team to load the bases with no outs. “Closer” Nakazaki came in for the Carp, only to give up a run-scoring single to Nishioka, a run-scoring ground-out and a run-scoring infield single to pinch hitter Keisuke Kanoh. With runners on the corners, two outs and the lead now down to one, sparkling rookie Shun Takayama stepped to the plate. He went down two strikes but continued to fight, earning a few bad pitch balls and fouling one or two off. You can see the last pitch of the game in the picture above. Called strike three to end the rally, the game, and the Tigers’ streak of not losing 3-game series to start the year. Heartbreak to end the week. Final Score: Carp 8, Tigers 7.
Series Notes: Gomez’s second at bat of Saturday’s game resulted in two players leaving the game prematurely: Carp starter Kuroda, off whose left ankle Gomez’ hit caromed, and Gomez himself (an inning later, but from an injury in that at bat), who injured his back. Gomez was not in Sunday’s lineup, and was replaced by Imanari at first… Matt Hague went to the hospital with a fever and other flu-like symptoms. He did not play on Sunday. Hojoh made his first career start in Hague’s place… Veteran reliever Yuya Andoh made his debut on the parent club on Sunday, pitching one scoreless inning. He replaced recent goat Kaneda on the roster. The Central League is log-jammed at the top now – click here for standings.