Last season, the Hanshin Tigers “won” the interleague season… in that they took home the best record of any of the Central League teams. Of course, in a mini-season dominated by Pacific League teams, there was no hope for them to win it outright, but a 10-8 record (including a stellar 8-1 at home) was a victory of sorts. This year, the schedule would replicate the one from 2015, but with host stadiums changing. So we begin our interleague journey in Sendai, Miyagi, where the host (last place) Tohoku Rakuten Eagles welcomed us with posh dugout seats for three games. Could we repeat the sweep that we earned against these bottom-feeders last year at Koshien?
Game 54 – Tuesday, 5/31: NO. (This is the answer to the question above.) Starter Atsushi Nohmi served up two solo home runs in the game’s first four innings, and allowed one more run to score in between them, as he put out the most bare-bones minimal “quality start” possible – 6 innings pitched, 3 earned runs. For all his efforts on the hill, his batting mates (“aided” by the designated hitter rule, which gave Matt Hague sitting privileges while Rakuten took batting practice against our pitchers) mustered a mere three hits – including an RBI double by Hiroki Uemoto. On this run that took place in the sixth inning, Takashi Toritani attempted to score from first base, and found himself barreling towards the scoring dish as the ball arrived. The initial call, “OUT!” underwent an 8-minute video review, at which time it was reversed, and the Tigers had at least ruined Takahiro Norimoto’s bid for a shutout. However, the bullpen pulled its usual stunt of getting hit over the head ad nauseum. Daiki Enokida allowed the Eagles to help themselves to 5 runs in the seventh, and Takumi Akiyama, making his 2016 debut, gave up another run in the eighth. Not the kind of start you want to make in the inaugural interleague game of 2016. Final Score: Eagles 9, Tigers 1. LP: Nohmi (3-4)
Game 55 – Wednesday, 6/1: If things weren’t bad enough, scheduled starter Yuya Yokoyama (right shoulder pain) was deactivated the day before this one, and was replaced by 2015 fifth round draft pick Koyo Aoyagi. He would make his career debut in this one, and while shaky at times (5 BB in 5 IP) he also was tough when he needed to be. The biggest test of his mettle came in the bottom of the third, when he loaded the bases with just one out. But he struck one guy out and induced a groundout to short from the other, and kept his shutout in tact for another inning. Meanwhile, the Tigers jumped out to an early lead after a Mauro Gomez double eventually led to his scoring on a Fumihito Haraguchi double play. Two innings later, Aoyagi was given a whole lot more breathing room when the clean-up hitters teamed up (Kosuke Fukudome double, Gomez walk, Keisuke Kanoh home run) to extend the lead to four. When Aoyagi stepped down, there was still a decent amount of breathing room (just a run in the fourth on his record), but the Tigers bullpen specializes in reducing leads and keeping games “interesting” (by giving its fans stomach ulcers). Akifumi Takahashi allowed three hits, including a “double” that popped out of Kanoh’s glove in left field. The damage when the dust settled in the seventh was a lead cut in half. Rafael Dolis returned to the team on Tuesday and pitched his first inning since that return in the eighth. It was a clean one, and gave fans hope that the ninth could be covered by someone not named Kyuji Fujikawa. Oh, Kyuji. The first out of the final inning was followed by his customary control issues. A walk and a single later, the winning run came to the plate in slugger Zelous Wheeler – he who blasted his 8th homer on Tuesday against Nohmi. Despite bringing it to a full count, Kyuji struck him out on a sinker in the dirt. Breathe easy again, Tigers fans. Final Score: Tigers 5, Eagles 3. WP: Aoyagi (1-0); SV: Fujikawa (2)
Game 56 – Thursday, 6/2: This day marks exactly a year since the most painful loss I have watched live in my entire life. Starter Shintaro Fujinami made sure that the Tigers would not suffer the same fate on this June 2nd. For the first time all season, the righty looked in control right from the start. He retired the first batter of the game for the first time in six starts, and pitched a clean first inning to boot. In fact, he only allowed three base runners all game, including just one single, and threw his first complete game shutout of the season. He needed just 100 pitches to do it, too! Meanwhile, the batting lineup did just enough to push runs across the plate. In the first, Toritani doubled and then scored on two consecutive grounders. In the third, Tsuyoshi Nishioka (remember him?) led off with a single, advanced to third on another single, then scored on a grounder. In the fifth, Toritani lifted one high into the Sendai sky and let the wind carry it just over the left field wall. And that was all the scoring in this one. Chances came in the sixth and seventh, but the Tigers were unable to take advantage of the weak Rakuten bullpen. Nevertheless, an opening game blowout was in the rearview mirror and the team could breathe more easily as their ace looked as good as he has since early last September. Final Score: Tigers 3, Eagles 0. WP: Fujinami (4-2)
Series Notes: Aoyagi only found out he would be starting Wednesday’s game the day before, as Yokoyama’s shoulder problem only came to light the day before his scheduled start… Fujinami induced an incredible 21 ground balls in his win, striking out just four and giving the outfielders just one fly ball to worry about… Nishioka’s promotion to the big club was precipitated by Uemoto’s wonky lower back, which caused his deactivation. Nishioka went 1-5 as DH in his first game back. (The DH was Matt Hague on Tuesday and Fukudome on Wednesday.) The Tigers won the series and are now 5-1 against the Eagles in the last two seasons. The Central League is as crowded as ever, and with interleague continuing another 15 games, it could remain so for awhile. Up next: a 3-game home stand against the Saitama Seibu Lions – the Tigers’ first home games since May 22, and only ones until June 14.