vs. Dragons – May 17-19 – Gut-Wrenching Start, Jubilant End

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Sunday’s loss tie left a bitter taste in the mouths of Hanshin fans. After all, a solid outing by Atsushi Nohmi was wasted in large part to poor fielding and uninspired hitting down the stretch. Coming home for six straight, the Tigers needed to win back their fans and bring their record at Koshien back above .500. Would the series against the young, surprising Dragons be the beginning of the season’s turn-around?

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Kanemoto was mad enough about how his team played to send a chair flying. We might have done worse had we been in his position.

Game 42 – Tuesday, 5/17This one started much like many games have lately for Kanemoto’s boys: another first inning home run for the bad guys. Randy Messenger calmed right down after that long ball, going six more innings and keeping the Dragons off the board. For their part, the bats came to life in the bottom of the second, with a Fumihito Haraguchi RBI single followed by a Randy sacrifice bunt and then a Shun Takayama two-RBI single – his first ribs in 18 at bats. The Tigers continued to press in the next innings, getting at least one runner in scoring position in the third, fourth and fifth innings, but failing to capitalize. So with a two run lead, the final two innings were left in the hands of the bullpen. With a runner on first and no outs, a sharp grounder was mishandled by Mauro Gomez and put the relief in a bit of a jam, and in fact the Dragons did push a run across the plate to make this a close one heading into the final inning of play. Rafael Dolis took the mound (see below for more information) and walked the first batter he faced. Once again, a very catchable ball – a fly ball to shallow left – was bobbled by Takashi Toritani, and the inning got uglier from there. The tying run scored, then the go-ahead run, on a sacrifice fly to shallow left. The throw was not on time but the tail runner was tagged out at third base. In the meantime, manager Kanemoto’s frustration with the team’s defense boiled over and an explosion ensued after his appeal to the umps (that the runner on third base left the bag prematurely – he was wrong in the end). Heading back to the dugout, Kanemoto kicked over a foldable chair (see picture above), punctuating his feelings about the Tigers’ play. The bottom of the ninth saw the home team bow out feebly, with just a Toritani single sandwiched between three weak outs. Final Score: Dragons 4, Tigers 3. LP: Dolis (1-2)

Kyuji finishes a game that he didn't start. That's right - for reasons we do not yet fully know, Fujikawa is our ninth inning man for the time being. He sealed this one using nothing but 13 fastballs.

Kyuji finishes a game that he didn’t start. That’s right – for reasons we do not yet fully know, Fujikawa is our ninth inning man for the time being. He sealed this one using nothing but 13 fastballs.

Game 43 – Wednesday, 5/18: With the team falling below the .500 mark for the first time since March 26, there was a sense of desperation, at least within the fan community. The last time Yuya Yokoyama was on the mound he mowed down these same Dragons, going seven shutout innings and earning his first career win. This time, he did not last as long but still pitched fairly strongly. The Tigers gave him an early lead with a Haraguchi RBI, cashing in Yutaro Itayama, who led off the inning with a double. The game got tied up later on a Ricardo Nanita single, but with the bases loaded and one out in the fourth, Toritani hit one deep enough to left to score a run and restore the lead. An inning later, Gomez hit a moon shot into the left field stands, and we found ourselves in the same situation that blew Sunday’s and Tuesday’s games: a small lead and a need to rely on the bullpen. With an out in the sixth and the heart of the Dragons order up, Kanemoto elected to pull Yokoyama and replace him with Tsuyoshi Ishizaki, his mate from industrial league play. The latter struck out Viciedo, induced a ground out to first out of Nanita, and then threw a clean seventh as well. Daiki Enokida got into a jam in the eighth and was replaced by Yuya Andoh, who proceeded to allow an RBI single on his first pitch, but then settled in to preserve the lead. The closer on this day brought us back to 2012, as Kyuji Fujikawa was driven up to the infield in the Tigers cart. He threw nothing but fastballs – and they aren’t as intimidating as they were a decade ago – and retired the side. Balloons set off. Fans relieved and moved by the nostalgia of the moment. Final Score: Tigers 3, Dragons 2. WP: Yokoyama (2-0), SV: Fujikawa (1)

Haraguchi continues to live up to his nickname: Cinderella Man. He hit his first walk-off of his career on Thursday night.

Haraguchi continues to live up to his nickname: Cinderella Man. He hit his first walk-off of his career on Thursday night.

Game 44 – Thursday, 5/19: Shintaro Fujinami continued his bad habit of starting games very slowly. He walked three and required over 30 pitches to get through a two-run first inning. He settled down (I use the term loosely) after that, not allowing another run to score through the sixth, but he did walk 5 guys and allow  hits. The Tigers could not manage to get on base against their young Wakamatsu, save two base hits in the first five innings. In the bottom of the sixth, Fujinami was pulled for a pinch hitter, who didn’t accomplish anything (and shall therefore remain unnamed here). Itayama doubled to right center, and an out later, Toritani dribbled one through the right side of the infield, and then Kosuke Fukudome doubled the captain in. Tie game, and Fujinami is off the hook. The relievers came in and kept things tight for three innings, while the hitters continued to not generate any offense. Until the bottom of the ninth, that is. Gomez got a one-out hit, and two batters later, the bases were loaded for Cinderella Boy, Haraguchi. He made no mistake with the 3-1 pitch, driving it to the left center gap. Game over. Series won. Final Score: Tigers 3, Dragons 2. WP: Fujikawa (2-2)

Series Notes: Incumbent closer Marcos Mateo reported pain in his left hip joint early in the week and did not play in the series. Dolis was deactivated before Thursday’s game. Rumor has it that he is feeling discomfort in his throwing shoulder and elbow from making appearances in 15 of the 23 games that the Tigers played since his call up. Matt Hague took his spot on the roster… Yamato accomplished the extremely rare (especially for non-power hitting Japanese) Golden Sombrero on Tuesday. He whiffed six times in the series and failed to record a hit… The Tigers find themselves tied for 3rd and host the second place Hiroshima Carp over the weekend. Click here for full standings.

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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.