There seem to be no favorites this year – except the BayStars. There seem to be no weaknesses this year – except the power hitting and the bullpen. There seems to be no preference between home and away games – except that our record at Koshien so far is a pedestrian 10-12-1. So as the Tigers head out to Jingu (1-1-1 so far) to face the last place Swallows, Tokyo Dome (2-1 so far) and Kobo Stadium (haven’t played there since 2014) to face the last place Eagles, should we be worried? The first of the three series gave us plenty of reason to continue to worry about the bullpen, and the starters did us no favors, either.
Game 46 – Tuesday, 5/24: Three of the Swallows best bats are righties. Our starter today, Atsushi Nohmi, was a lefty. But weren’t those matchup disadvantages mostly in Wada’s head? The veteran twirled a good game for six innings, despite walking the leadoff runner in three of those frames. The Tigers looked awful out of the gates, too. They struck out 4 – yes, four – times in the first inning (Yamato reached when he swung strike three at a wild pitch). The second started just as poorly, as two guys went down swinging before Captain Walker (Takashi Toritani) set things straight with a free pass, and then Nohmi took first base on four balls as well. Leadoff hitter Fumiya Hojoh crushed a ball off the center field wall, bringing the two runners home, and then Yamato converted Hojoh on a ball that foiled their third baseman and skidded into left field. Nohmi would add to the team’s lead with a sacrifice fly (isn’t that also the captain’s job this year?) to center in the fourth. The Swallows battled back with two walks and a single scoring them a run in the bottom of the frame, but Nohmi hung in to finish off the inning without any further damage. The teams exchanged blows in the seventh (Fumihito Haraguchi solo shot to right, then meltdown city by Yuya Andoh and Akifumi Takahashi). The meltdown of the bullpen continued in the eighth as Kyuji Fujikawa walked three Swallows, including one with the bases loaded. However, the Tigers fought back in the ninth as Mauro Gomez whistled one into right center and Shun Takayama popped one high to third and let the wind help him yet again when the fielder failed to make a catch. The only drama left would be to see if the three run lead would be enough for struggling reliever Marcos Mateo. Hits and walks piled up and the winning run was at the plate, and went by the name of Wladmir Balentien (yes, he of the 60 home run record 2013 season). The pitch. The hit. The bat flip. The catch at the wall. Game over. Final Score: Tigers 7, Swallows 5. WP: Nohmi (3-3), SV: Mateo (11)
Game 47 – Wednesday, 5/25: It seems last night’s ending left a bad taste in someone’s mouth. After an error helped push the first run over the plate for the Swallows, Balentien rocked one to the deepest part of the field and brought home two more runs. The debt was soon cleared, though, as Hanshin starter Yuya Yokoyama led off with a double, which was followed by a Hojoh RBI double, a Yutaro Itayama walk and then a Gomez 3-run shot to right center. Unfortunately, Balentien gets more than one at bat per game, and after walking the leadoff hitter and allowing another hit, the big Curaçaoan duplicated his first inning feat with another bomb to dead center. The Birds weren’t done bashing around our pitchers yet, though. Yokoyama was knocked out after three, but the party continued as Kojiro Tanabo also got smacked around for two more in the fourth. These Tigers were not ready to lay down yet, though. Toritani sent one into the left field stands to draw the visitors to within two in the sixth. The Swallows relievers struggled to locate their pitches, and when they finally did, Kosuke Fukudome smacked one into left field for another run. Then in the eighth, Captain Walker did his thing again, and eventually scored the tying run on a Keisuke Kanoh pinch hit single to left. Despite a great chance to take the lead, neither Fukudome nor Gomez was able to put a ball in play against Swallows closer Ondrusek. Andoh pitched a gutsy bottom half, and Ondrusek blanked the Tigers again in the ninth. Unfortunately, Fujikawa gave up a leadoff double, and with two runners in scoring position, all it took was a sacrifice fly for the walk-off to take place… and it did. It was a well-fought battle by the Tigers, but they came up short. Final Score: Swallows 9, Tigers 8. LP: Fujikawa (2-3)
Game 48 – Thursday, 5/26: It didn’t take long for the Swallows to take a lead in this one, either. Shintaro Fujinami had better control on this day (just one walk), but all that meant was that he got hit more. Balentien brought a runner home on a sharp grounder that eked past third. But our slugger would not be outdone – a shot to deep center (the same place Balentien hit his on Wednesday) tied the game at one. Unfortunately, Balentien didn’t seem to like that much, and hit a homer of his own in the bottom of the third. But… anyone remember Fukudome? The home run hitting right fielder of yesteryear? He clubbed just his third bomb of the year (first since April 7), and Haraguchi followed up with one of his own, tying the score again. The next inning, Fujinami served up another bomb, this time to Kawabata, and the deficit was two again. But a half frame later, the Tigers battled back. Gomez’s single was followed by a Haraguchi plunking, and then a Matt Hague double to left center, cashing in the two base runners! Once again, the game found itself knotted up. Things stayed that way for a few scoreless innings. Until the bottom of the ninth, in fact, when Mateo loaded the bases without recording an out. A liner to shallow center was all he managed before a come-backer to Hatakeyama gave the Swallows a walk-off win and the series as well. Welcome to sub-.500, Hanshin. Final Score: Swallows 6, Tigers 5. LP: Mateo (1-2)
Series Notes: Fukudome picked up three hits (called a modasho in Japanese) in Tuesday’s win. His average is back at the .300 mark and he is once again eligible for the batting title. His home run on Thursday was the 1000th RBI of his NPB (805) and MLB (195) career… Hague also dropped two hits on Tuesday, and made good contact on one of his outs, too. Then on Thursday he hit two more. We’re still waiting for his power game to kick in, but he’s starting to look like the Hague of this season’s first two weeks… The Giants got swept by the Carp and Chunichi dropped two straight to DeNA, so the standings in the Central are extremely tight, aside from the room that Hiroshima has created for itself at the top.