vs. Hawks – June 17-19 – One out of Three Ain’t Bad!

A rainout in the Buffaloes series meant that the Tigers would not end the interleague schedule playing the hardest team in baseball. Many expected this team of loaded bats and arms to plow over the Tigers, who have struggled mightily against the Pacific League. However, this rematch of the 2014 Nippon Series would play out much closer than anyone expected.

Game 68 – Friday, 6/17: Because of the rain on Thursday, the Tigers slid Shintaro Fujinami‘s start over one day, giving us a strong trio to combat the strongest team in the world. He came out strong, giving them very little to get excited about for the first three innings. Then, me and my buddy got up to get our food for the night. (I got a delicious Ryota Imanari-inspired taco rice, and Netherlands-inspired (?) lace fries topped with fake ballpark cheese.) Anyways, all that to say that I saw none of the damage that the Hawks did to Fujinami and the Tigers. When I got back to my seat, the score was 2-0 and the Hawks were threatening to score more. But my viewing magic/mojo returned to Shintaro, as he induced a fly ball to shallow left and a double play to get out of the inning without incurring any further damage. (So he gave up the runs on walks and grounders that bounced too high or found gaps in the infield.) The Tigers bats struggled mightily against their starter (Ken’ichi Nakata), and our lone scores against him came by virtue of a single, followed by a walk, a generous infield single call (should have been an error), and two bases-loaded walks in a row. Good enough for me! In fact, Fujinami was pulled at the end of that inning, with the hopes that the bases loaded situation would produce more runs and a chance for the team’s first lead of the game. It did not. The game remained knotted until the bottom of the ninth with two outs, when Fumiya Hojoh hit a clutch single, then was replaced by Shunsuke (who stole second on a questionable check-swing which could have been the game-ender). Given a second chance, and facing a clearly upset/rattled closer in Dennis Sarfate, Kosuke Fukudome poked one through the gap between short and third, and Shunsuke motored home, barely beating out the tag. I mean BARELY. I mean, the Hawks fielders did not leave the field, and the play was reviewed. Imagine that, a walk-off celebrated and then taken away? Alas, the play stood and the good guys got the series off on a great note! Final Score: Tigers 3, Hawks 2. Team Record: 31-34-3. WP: Rafael Dolis (2-2)

Game 69 – Saturday, 6/18: In a day game after Friday night’s nearly 4-hour marathon, it is understandable that the freshest looking players on both teams were the starting pitchers. Randy Messenger was nearly flawless, struggling only momentarily in the top of the third, when he gave up two hits (including one to Hawks starter Kodai Senga) and then did a bad job glove-tossing a suicide squeeze ball back to home. The runner was safe by a long shot and the runners all advanced. He held tough, though, striking out the hottest-hitting batter in interleague, then inducing a ground out to their #4 hitter. Unfortunately for Randy, the Tigers bats provided him just one hit in support – matching the total that Randy himself hit. So with just two singles, one walk (to whom, you ask? Need you ask? Takashi Toritani, of course!) and an error by them, we never got anyone past second base all game. The Tigers bats fanned an incredible 14 times and this one went to the two-time defending Nippon Series champs. Final Score: Hawks 1, Tigers 0. Team Record: 31-35-3. LP: Messenger (6-5)

Game 70 – Sunday, 6/19: The rains all morning and right until an hour before game time put this one in doubt, but they went through with it anyways. For four innings, it looked like the right decision, as the Tigers continued to play the Hawks close. Then the fifth happened. Yuta Iwasada walked the leadoff hitter, then gave up two straight hits with one out, and walked home a run with two outs and the bases loaded. The next batter removed any hopes of a close game or dramatic finish. It was not the hardest hit ball, but it was enough to clear the right field wall near the pole. It took the Tigers until the bottom of the seventh to mount a bit of a comeback, which came off the bats of Fumihito Haraguchi (double), Masahiro Nakatani (RBI double, just inches from being a homer), Hojoh (RBI single) but that was it. Curveballs watched and whiffed ended the threat. A solo shot in the top of the eighth extended the lead back up to four. The Tigers allowed themselves to be punching bags for one last inning, as Koyo Aoyagi‘s poor control and some easy hits led to two more runs. A mini-rally in the final frame gave Nakatani his first career multi-hit game and run. But the Tigers’ interleague record sits at an ugly 6-11 with one more game to play on Monday. Final Score: Hawks 8, Tigers 4. Team Record: 31-36-3. LP: Iwasada (4-4).

Series Notes: Including his final at bat Wednesday against the Buffaloes, Mauro Gomez struck out in a record 7 straight at bats. He was pinch hit for in Saturday’s game and did not appear in Sunday’s finale. As evidenced by the above picture, he was clearly not happy with his own performance. Neither were fans or coaches… With his hit on Sunday, Fukudome crept to 1,996 on his career (including 498 MLB hits). He was hoping to reach the 2,000 plateau while at home, but will only do so with either an incredible display of hitting on Monday, or an abysmal series against the Carp next weekend… Iwasada has allowed just 23 runs all season including Sunday’s 5. Eight of those runs came on two interleague grand slam home runs against… And then there’s the Tigers. Their homer-less drought reached 14 games on Sunday, one shy of their worst stretch in team history. They have just two home runs in interleague play, both against the Eagles… Carp aside, the Central League has stunk it up during interleague once again. The Tigers had plenty of chances to creep up in the standings, but instead sink deeper into fifth.

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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.