We take two steps forward and one step back. One step forward and then two back. The Hanshin Tigers have been within a game of .500 since May 11 – an incredible stretch in which there has been no winning or losing streak longer than two games. After nine games on the road, the team came back to Koshien for three before they head back out for six away games. How would they fare against the mighty hitting Lions? Better than last year, we hope!
Game 57 – Friday, 6/3: “They’ve got good power hitters. I have to focus on avoiding putting guys on base ahead of them.” — famous last words of starter Yuta Iwasada. A clean first few innings were erased in an instant when he walked two (and gave up a single to a third) before big bad Ernesto Mejia blasted one over the left field wall to give the visiting cats a 4-0 lead. The Tigers struck back in the bottom of the fourth, getting 5 singles from their first six hitters to score three runs. The rally ended with runners in scoring position and Iwasada at the dish. In the top of the fifth, he allowed one more run on back-to-back triples, but the game still looked winnable. In the bottom of the inning, with runners on first and second and no one out, Lions starter Andy van Hekken was reeling. The team bailed him out by bringing in a reliever before things could get out of control. Too bad for us. Matt Hague check-swung at the first pitch he saw, dribbling an easy grounder to pitcher for a double play. The Tigers would not score another run all game, despite a few chances. Meanwhile, Iwasada continued to struggle in the sixth, giving up two more and leaving two on base when his day was over. Hiroya Shimamoto must have drawn inspiration from the rest of the bullpen, as he let both runners score before jogging back to the dugout with the game now out of hand. The bats hit into two more rally-killing double plays (including another by Hague in the 7th) and third pitcher Takumi Akiyama gave Mejia his second homer of the game in the ninth, as the Tigers ended their two-game winning streak with a resounding hollow thump. Final Score: Kings of the Jungle 12, Striped Cats 3. LP: Iwasada (4-3)
Game 58 – Saturday, 6/4: It didn’t take very long for the batters to release their frustration over the previous day’s blowout. Takashi Toritani led off with a single, Fumiya Hojoh did the same, Kosuke Fukudome knocked one through the right side of the infield to score a run and Mauro Gomez hit a sacrifice fly. It also didn’t take starting pitcher Randy Messenger long to send a message to the Lions: you aren’t gonna score on me. The big righty struck out 10 overall, allowing just six singles and walking two through seven innings. His lone blemish came on a sharply hit ball to shortstop that Toritani was unable to field. (He was not charged with an error. Surprised? You shouldn’t be.) The bats padded the lead further in the third inning when Fukudome singled, Gomez reached on an error (the first of three committed by the Lions infield) and Shun Takayama blooped an RBI single to shallow left. Ryota Imanari belted a double to left to score Gomez. The rally ended there, but the lead was more than enough on this day. Rafael Dolis pitched a shutout eighth, Gomez added an RBI single in the bottom half, and Kyuji Fujikawa pitched a rare clean ninth as the Tigers evened the series at one. Final Score: Tigers 5, Lions 1. WP: Messenger (5-4)
Game 59 – Sunday, 6/5: Things could have started better for Suguru Iwazaki, who gave up a leadoff hit, then saw the runner advance one base at a time – a sacrifice bunt, wild pitch and single gave the Lions an early lead. Fortunately in the bottom half of the inning, Gomez hit a double (that could have been a home run had the winds been blowing from the seaside as they usually do) and Takayama brought home the leading runner on a grounder that popped off the pitcher’s glove and then failed to find his hand on the ensuing pick-up. Once again the Lions took the lead two innings later when a single to left short-hopped under Takayama’s glove, putting the runner on third with one out. He would score on a sacrifice fly. The Tigers, though, were not ready to give up just yet. Takayama walked in the bottom of the sixth, and Fumihito Haraguchi‘s first hit of the series was an important one – an RBI double to the left-center gap. The relievers held on tight despite some rough patches (Dolis started the eighth with two straight walks). The Tigers’ best chance to take the lead came in the bottom of the eighth when Fukudome and Gomez each hit singles, but Takayama’s bunt attempt was easily handled by the catcher and the lead runner was thrown out at third. The game went into extras, and after a clean eleventh by Yuya Andoh, his turn to bat came up with a runner on first. Instead of “wasting” a pinch hitter in a bunt situation and forcing Andoh out of the game, Kanemoto elected to bring him to the plate. His bunt attempt resulted in a strikeout, and the game went into the twelfth. Andoh gave up a hit and a bunt before yielding the game into the hands of Shimamoto, who gave up the winning hit after an intentional walk and a strikeout. The last gasp for the Tigers proved to be just that – a gasp. Final Score: Lions 3, Tigers 2. LP: Andoh (0-1)
Series Notes: Shintaro Yokota got the recall on Friday (Yutaro Itayama was sent down), but did not make an appearance until he got the start in center field on Saturday, hitting sixth. He also started on Sunday, but failed to record a hit in either game… Fukudome got the day off on Friday, and on Saturday, Haraguchi got his first day of rest since being called up in late April. He committed an error on Friday for the first time since his debut… Toritani saw his 5-game hitting streak come to an end on Sunday (0-for-6). He is now hitting .248 on the year… Imanari became a father on Friday afternoon, when his first daughter was born… Akiyama was sent down to the farm on Sunday, and Koki Moriya was called up to replace him… The standings are still congested at the top. Click here for a look.