vs. Dragons – July 29-31 – Best Week of the Year

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The Hanshin Tigers have no reason to get too high after sweeping the lowly Tokyo Yakult Swallows at home earlier this week. After all, they faced inferior pitching and were just starting to heat up at the plate after battering the Hiroshima Carp (pun intended) last Sunday. This would be their last chance to enjoy the cozy confines of Koshien Stadium before beginning their annual August road trips. How would they do against these Chunichi Dragons, who had an identical record to the Tigers heading into this series?

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Game 97 – Friday 7/29: At first, this one closely mirrored the opener of the Swallows series, in a sense. Shintaro Fujinami gave up consecutive two-out singles (the second of which was misplayed by third baseman Ryota Arai) and then paid the price when Hirata catapulted a bad pitch into the left field stands. The three-run deficit looked to be one they could overcome, as they did on Tuesday, as the Dragons trotted out a seldom-used starter. However, the bats that wowed fans earlier in the week were silent on Friday. Just one base runner through four innings, and he was the victim of an easy 6-4-3 double play to end the first. Fortunately for Fujinami, he cruised after that poor pitch in the first. After five innings of work, he allowed just one hit beyond the first inning, striking out 8. In the bottom of the inning, with runners on first and second, the team brought in Fumihito Haraguchi (who was benched in favor of catcher Kazunari Tsuruoka, who helped Fujinami to 13 of his wins last year) to pinch hit and hope to get the team a lead. The Dragons chickened out and loaded the bases, putting the Tigers in a bind. With the bases loaded and two outs, do you pinch hit? Or roll the dice on the pitcher (who hits better than most hurlers but is by no means Shohei Ohtani II)? Kanemoto opted for the latter choice, and it cost him. Fujinami struck out and the game remained 3-0. Fujinami continued to hurl the ball well, striking out 5 guys in his next two innings (including 4 in the seventh, equalling an NPB record), but the bats only got him one run (on a Kosuke Fukudome grounder) while he was in the game. The Dragons called on nearly their entire bullpen, mixing and matching to confound Hanshin bats, and it worked. Two leadoff hits (in the eighth and ninth) went to waste as the team could not advance the runner into scoring position, even. The daily parties at Koshien came to an anguishing end, with the visitors drawing first blood. Final Score: Dragons 3, Tigers 1. Team Record: 41-53-3. LP: Fujinami (4-7)

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Game 98 – Saturday 7/30: The team is starting to lean harder on the proven veteran import. After two starts last week, Randy Messenger came in again on 5 days’ rest. While allowing base runners in all seven of his innings, just a Viciedo (who else?) solo home run in the sixth and an RBI double to the right field corner in the seventh tarnished his otherwise dominant outing. He got support from the hitters, too, primarily the #4 hitter. Fukudome blasted a solo shot in the 2nd, then scored in the 4th after reaching base on a single, then drove in a run (and scored later) on a triple in the 5th and capped it off with a bases-clearing double in the 6th. Yes, he hit for the cycle! Also highlighting the offense was Shun Takayama‘s first home run at Koshien Stadium as a Hanshin Tiger. It was a solo blast in the 5th. Messenger’s biggest challenge came in the top of the seventh, when with two outs and a runner on second, Kanemoto called for a pitching change. Randy waved him off and proceeded to allow a hit and a walk, bringing his pitch count to 140, bases loaded and (who else?) Viciedo up at the dish. This time, though, the bigger man won. A high heater and the ensuing whiff created enough wind to send Yamato over the center field wall. Fortunately he was kept in the park by the sheer mugginess of the Koshien air. The game played out quietly as the Dragons looked deflated and the Tigers were celebrating another big win almost before this one ended. Final Score: Tigers 8, Dragons 2. Team Record: 42-53-3. WP: Messenger (9-6)

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Game 99 – Sunday 7/31: The rubber match would be a hard one to win, and that’s no joke. ジョーダンじゃないよ。Jordan Norberto came into this one with 5 wins on the season, 3 of which came against the Tigers. Despite a leadoff hit to Takayama in the first, he kept the fans out of the game by keeping the yellow jerseys off the bases all night – almost. For his part, Suguru Iwazaki bounced back nicely from his awful outing against the Carp last week. His lone blemish was a shaky second inning in which he allowed a single run. The rest of his seven innings were very clean and efficient. It was not until the bottom of the seventh that the bats showed a little spark. Masahiro Nakatani hit a two-out single and was backed up nicely by Fumiya Hojoh and then a clutch pinch hit double by Keisuke Kanoh. That would be the end of the night for the Dragons starter, and he was suddenly in line for the loss. In the eighth, the party continued with a walk, hit, walk and then a big double by Mauro Gomez. A sacrifice fly and an error later, and Hojoh stepped up again and brought Gomez home. The game was quickly out of hand, in a good way. All that was left to see was how newly promoted Cody Satterwhite would do in his debut. Deep fly to left. Hard hit single up the middle. Strikeout. Hit to left. Fly to left. Game over. Final Score: Tigers 6, Dragons 1. Team Record: 43-53-3. WP: Iwazaki (2-4)

Series Notes: Fujinami is now winless in his last 7 starts (a career worst winless stretch) and has only one win since April 12… Fukudome became the fourth player in NPB history to hit two cycles in his career – the first came 13 years prior as a young member of the Chunichi Dragons. He is also the oldest player (39 years, 95 days) to accomplish the feat… Messenger recorded two hits in his win, touching home after one of them on Fukudome’s double… Fumiya Araki got three singles and walked once in his attempt to make his case for more playing time… Rafael Dolis was experiencing discomfort in his right elbow and was deactivated after Saturday’s game. Satterwhite was called up in his place… Takashi Toritani once again started every game on the bench, coming in as a pinch hitter in the eighth and standing in at short for the ninth. His consecutive games streak continues on, but the team continues to win without him in the lineup for the bulk of the game. The Tigers leapfrog the Dragons while the Swallows continue their tailspin. Standings here.

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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.