Two Young Farm Arms

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Fumihito Haraguchi and Fumiya Hojoh joined the farm squad as they played the Orix Buffaloes second team on the 15th. On the 16th, Shun Takayama got some playing time (and has since been farmed outright), and on the 17th, Haraguchi and Takayama were both in the starting lineup. In the baseball world, this is called “a helping hand.” It is absolutely not because the farm team is bringing in ringers from the top squad. On the contrary, players who are not getting enough plate appearances or field time on the top squad are given a chance to play on the farm. But for some reason, coaches and managers will often say, “Today we’re getting some help from above” in such instances. Just one of the oddities of pro ball, I suppose.

So the team tied, lost and lost the three games against the Buffaloes. Instead of gaining ground on the 3rd place Chunichi Dragons, the Tigers have lined themselves up for a tie with the Buffaloes (they lead by one-thousandth of a percentage point). Mind you, as of the 17th, the gap from the top to the bottom of the league was just 8.5 games, which is unlike previous seasons. Still, Hanshin has just 30 or so games left. Now it’s up to the players to see what kind of results they can get, and how they can earn the favor of coaches and management. They’re in a battle against themselves.

Here’s a look at the game on the 17th, in which starter Hiroto Saiki was preceded (?) by Atsushi Mochizuki.

Mochizuki’s line: 1.0 IP, 28 TP, 4 H, 1 K, 0 BB, 2 R – Max 153 km/h (95 mph)

Saiki’s line: 5.2 IP, 101 TP, 8 H, 5 K, 3 BB, 5 R – Max 152 km/h (94.5 mph)

In the first inning, after getting the first out, Mochizuki gave up a double to left to Iwazaki and a single to left to Mune. Then #4 hitter Sugimoto hit one to shallow right to score a run. He struck out Sonobe looking at a 151 km/h fastball, but then gave up an RBI single to Brent Morel. He left the game with the team behind two. Saiki came in and pitched two clean innings, striking out three total in the 2nd and 3rd. In the 4th he gave up a two-out single to Iida but that was all.

On the other side of the field, the batters went down in order in the first and second, but in the third, catcher Kenya Nagasaka got the team’s first hit (to right). Though they didn’t score in that inning, the hitters really came to life in the 4th. With one out, Naomasa Yohkawa hit a single to left, Keisuke Kanoh walked, and Ryosuke Ogata brought home the first run on a single to center. Next, Taiga Egoshi tied the score with a single to right. An out later, Kai Ueda hit a single to left, giving the Tigers its first lead, 3-2.

 

In the fifth, Saiki allowed a hit to leadoff hitter Okazaki, and an out later, another to Iwazaki. Mune then hit an infield RBI single (shortstop Ueda was quick to stop this one, going across his body to nab it, but the throw to first was just a little late). But in the bottom of the inning, with one out, Haraguchi took the first pitch he saw from Takagi and sent it sailing over the wall in left. It was a goner from the instant it touched wood. The lead was ours once again. Both teams went down in order in the sixth, and it was on to the seventh.

Had he gotten through the inning, Saiki would have equalled his longest outing of the year. He gave up back-to-back infield singles, though, to Okazaki and Nemoto to lead off the inning, and then he beaned Iwazaki to load the bases with no outs. He gave up a 2-RBI single to right to Mune, and the Tigers lost their lead once again. Then Nagasaka fielded Sugimoto’s bunt and threw it on to Yohkawa and on to Ueda for a double play. With two outs and a runner on first, though, Sonobe hit a 2-run homer to left, and the score was 4-7. Saiki was finished for the day.

Shoya Yamamoto took over in the 8th inning and was perfect. But Kazuya Takamiya did not look sharp in the 9th. Nemoto hit a single to right, Iwazaki walked, Mune bunted them over and then Sugimoto hit a two-run double to deep left. With two outs, Morel walked and Iida hit an RBI single (it was sharply hit and snuck under Takamiya’s arm) to give up another run, and the deficit was up to 4-10.

In the bottom half of the inning, Takayama hit a single to right, and with one out, Naoto Nishida (a mid-game replacement) swung at a 1-1 offering and put it over the right field wall for his first home run of the season. But that was all the fight the Tigers had in them. The game ended 10-6.


Saiki Learning to Throw 100 Pitches

After the game, farm manager Masayuki Kakefu had this to say about Saiki: “He’s got power and he’s got a good arm slot. Now he needs stamina. The plan was for him to throw 100 pitches today. We could have pulled him after the sixth, but we wanted to see him throw one more inning. I didn’t want to take him out mid-inning. We don’t have anyone else after Nagasaka and Saiki. To replace them without them feeling any kind of burden to play through it is pointless.”

It would have had more meaning to see the rookie battery get through the 7th and then replace them. But, adds Kakefu, “Saiki learned just how hard it is to reach 100 pitches.”

Asked about the two pitchers, pitching coach Yasuo Kubo first talked about Mochizuki. “He threw well. Considering he is coming back from lower back pains, he’s coming along well. If he feels alright in the morning, we’ll have him throw deeper next time.” About Saiki, he said, “Today was about him throwing 100 pitches. The other team clearly started figuring him out the second time through the order, but that’s a good thing in a way. It gives him something to work on.

“Once he gets through the summer, he will change a lot in the fall,” added Kubo, smiling. It’s always exciting to see a fruitful fall harvest come out of these high school draftees.


Fighting Himself

Let’s see what the players themselves had to say. First, Atsushi Mochizuki. One week ago on the 9th, he made his comeback against the Hiroshima Carp (at Naruohama) after a 5-month layoff. He threw the sixth inning of that game, giving up two runs on four hits. Yesterday was his second appearance, and he threw just one inning but this time it was as the game’s starter. I kind of think it might have been because first squad manager Tomoaki Kanemoto was in attendance to see Saiki, and this gave him a chance to see both pitchers on the same day. Just my guess, though.

Mochizuki had this to say after the game. “Last game I was trying a little too hard to force things, and my fastball was coming in too high. Same with my shooter. So today I tried to focus on keeping my pitches low, getting into a good rhythm and using my body right, kind of like a bullpen session.” But he also said “It was pretty much an awful outing. I didn’t do anything right.” He mentioned that in his first outing he threw a lot of offspeed pitches. How about this time? “Not enough.” Sounds like he knows he has a lot to work on.

So what did he think went so terribly wrong? “I was fighting against myself during the game. I think it was because I was thinking too much about not forcing things and keeping the ball low in the zone. I wasn’t able to think about throwing off the batters’ timing. If I had been able to do that, probably the ball would have stayed down in the zone anyways,” he said, analyzing his performance.

What thoughts does he have about his next outing? “I have been given two chances already, and I’m sure hitters will be sitting on my fastball next time out, so I can’t keep them high in the zone. I have to change things up from game to game, make progress. I want to make some changes still.” As long as his back holds up, he should see his innings increase, too. But no need to rush things. I think he will blossom into a full-blown star in due time.


Not Enough Stamina to be a Starter

Next, Hiroto Saiki. His outing was essentially a starter’s game, even though he was actually the second guy on the mound. When asked if that threw him off at all, he said, “I didn’t really give it much thought.” He threw a perfect first inning (the 2nd) and second inning (the 3rd)… was it his best start as a pro? “No, because I let the leadoff guy reach base in the 5th, 6th and 7th. Right after we got a few runs I let the leadoff guy reach base. That’s not a good start.”

Were you throwing heat in those first two innings? “I wasn’t really thinking about it, but I definitely had good motion going. But in the later part of the game I crapped out, so obviously I don’t have enough stamina yet. I think I need to work on my stamina to become a good starter.” I see. By the way, three of your pitches reached 152 km/h. Is that a personal best? “I threw 152? I guess it is my best.” 151 was also a personal best, which he reached in this game.

As for knowing about Kanemoto being in attendance, “Yeah, I was sort of told ahead of time.” Last time you weren’t? “No. But this time I was. Still, I didn’t really give it much thought.” How did your fastball feel? “It felt good in the early parts of the game. But I have to keep that going a little deeper into the game.” Looking back on the 7th inning, he said “I have to learn from our pitch choice on that home run. It was a good experience.” He also added that Kakefu was right about the difficulty of reaching the 100-pitch mark.

Compared to other pitchers, Saiki has been given more days of rest. Thanks to rainouts, he has had even more time off. So how does he use that adjustment time? “I prefer to train and work on technique, rather than make adjustments.” Right. Pitching coaches of the past would always say, “Young pitchers don’t make adjustments. They practice, they learn, they study.”

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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.