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Returning home after a crushing defeat in Game 3 of the Lotte series, Hanshin needed to regroup quickly and continue to build up some credit against the weaker Pacific League teams. Yes, it is weird to call the defending champions “weaker” but the truth is, aside from two batters (Kensuke Kondoh, who was hitting .415 on the season heading into this series, and Brandon Laird, who shared the NPB home run lead heading into the weekend), this team is not terribly scary. But could Hanshin, with the latter half of its rotation slated to start, do enough to win the series?
Game 50 – Friday 6/2. I was sad at the End
Starting Pitchers: Yuta Iwasada (2-3) vs. Hirotoshi Takanashi (3-4)
Bottom 4: Both pitchers cruised until Fumihito Haraguchi (making his first start in some time) lined one over the left field wall. Hanshin 1, Nippon Ham 0
Bottom 5: Iwasada led off the inning with a single up the middle, and Kento Itohara immediately rewarded him with a double to right center. The pitcher cruised around the base paths and scored easily. Hanshin 2, Nippon Ham 0
Top 7: Laird led off the inning with a double to deep left center, and after getting an out, Iwasada’s night was over. Kentaro Kuwahara was unsuccessful in stranding the runner, but kept the damage to a minimum (despite picking up an error while bobbling a bunt). Hanshin 2, Nippon Ham 1
Top 9: Rafael Dolis didn’t look his best right from the start. A leadoff infield hit was followed by a walk on four straight pitches. The next guy bunted both runners into scoring position, and the next pulled off a squeeze play to tie the game. Then, with the infield drawn in, the next hitter got one down the third baseline, scoring two more runs. Suguru Iwazaki finished the inning off while Dolis sadly gazed out onto the field from the dugout.
Final Score: Nippon Ham 4, Hanshin 2. LP: Dolis (0-3). Team Record: 29-21-0
Game 51 – Saturday 6/3. Unlikeliest of Heroes, Plus a Wild Goat
Starting Pitchers: Koyo Aoyagi (1-2) vs. Luis Mendoza (2-3)
Top 1: After an infield hit, the Fighters went for their typical sacrifice bunt, and Aoyagi gave them his typical stray throw to first base. With no outs and runners on first and second, Kondoh, who went hitless on Friday night, slashed one into right field for the game’s first run. Laird followed it up with a sacrifice fly. Nippon Ham 2, Hanshin 0
Bottom 3: Taichi Okazaki led off the frame with a single to right, and Aoyagi made up for his error by bunting him into scoring position. The next batter up was Yoshio Itoi, whose bat had been silent for a few days, especially with runners in scoring position. Well, he flared one over second base and Okazaki chugged home to cut the lead to one. Nippon Ham 2, Hanshin 1
Bottom 4: If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it. With Takashi Toritani on third and one out, Okazaki hit his first career home run, a moon shot over the wall near the left field foul pole. The inning continued with a decent chance to extend the lead, but alas, nothing came of it. Hanshin 3, Nippon Ham 2
Top 6: Aoyagi ran into some trouble, and was replaced with two outs and runners on first and second. His line on the night was: 5 2/3 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 0 ER, 4 BB, 5 K. Iwazaki walked the bases plump but got out of the inning unscathed.
Top 7: Facing the heart of the Ham order, Akifumi Takahashi found a way to strike out Takuya “Foul Ball Machine” Nakashima looking, then Kensuke “I don’t swing at balls” Kondoh swinging, and finally Sho “I’m good enough for Samurai Japan but when no one’s looking I suck” Nakata swinging at junk. Clutch relief.
Bottom 8: With the lead still just one skinny run, the team needed some insurance. In comes Kosuke Fukudome, who led off with a hard-fought walk. He advanced 90 feet on (what else?) a sacrifice bunt, and then scored on a nice drive to right by Toritani. Now we can rest easy, right?
Top 9: Wrong. Dolis gives up a leadoff hit, then pulls an Aoyagi (or is it a Mateo? or a Dolis?) and threw the fielded bunt errantly to first. With the go-ahead run in scoring position and just one out, the biggest challenge of the season (even more than the one he put himself in two Sundays ago) laid ahead: Kensuke Kondoh and Sho Nakata. On a full count, he threw a gutsy, dirty forkball to get the hitting machine out on strikes, and then got struggling Nakata to foul out to catcher. Exhale now. Watch highlights here.
Final Score: Hanshin 4, Nippon Ham 2. WP: Aoyagi (2-2). SV: Dolis (18). Team Record: 30-21-0
Game 52 – Sunday 6/4. Luck + Grit = Another Comeback Win
Starting Pitchers: Taiki Ono (0-1) vs. Toru Murata (0-1)
Bottom 3: Itoi got on board with a seeing-eye single, then stole second, and came home on a Shun Takayama RBI single. Hanshin 1, Nippon Ham 0
Top 6: Rookie Ono was cruising through the game’s first five innings, allowing just 2 hits while walking 2, but hiccuped pretty badly here. Nishikawa got on, took second on a bunt, and then back-to-back hits by the Fighters’ big bats (Laird and Nakata) put two runs on the board. Hanshin 1, Nippon Ham 2
Top 7: Ono was given one more inning, and got the Pigs out in order. His final line: 7 IP, 103 TP, 5 H, 2 R, 3 BB, 7 K.
Top 9: The game was still up for grabs, and Hanshin got a couple of chances but were unable to capitalize. Kyuji Fujikawa entered and gave up a lead off bloop double (could have been caught by Itohara, but wasn’t), then saw the runner go to third on a grounder, and score on a passed ball. Hanshin 1, Nippon Ham 3
Bottom 9: Cue the come back. Closer Masui didn’t have his best stuff by any stretch of the imagination, walking the bases loaded before seeing the gap close to one run on a soft Itohara grounder. Fumihito Haraguchi entered as pinch hitter and poked one up the middle to bring the tying run home. With just one out, there was ample opportunity to walk this one off. But alas, the Tigers decided to give its fans some free baseball for the first time in a long time. Hanshin 3, Nippon Ham 3
10th inning: Pretty uneventful on both ends. Five strikeouts total, including 3 from Dolis.
Top 11: Marcos Mateo got into a bit of a pickle with two outs and runners on first and second, but induced a fly ball to end the threat.
Bottom 11: Yamato took his marching orders to first. Toritani lucked his way on after the catcher threw the ball away on a bunt. Yamato got called out (erroneously – check here) at third on the next bunt, but Haraguchi made sure the score evened itself out as he reached base on another Fighters error. So with the bases loaded and one out, whose turn should come up to hit? None other than yesterday’s hero, Okazaki. His at bat lasted what felt like an eternity (8 foul balls and a full count), but he got plenty on the 13th pitch of the at bat, screaming one down the third baseline as fans screamed their approval and the balloons screeched through the air in Nishinomiya. Video from the left field stands. Series salvaged. Game highlights here.
Final Score: Hanshin 4x, Nippon Ham 3. WP: Mateo (5-0). Team Record: 31-21-0