2017 Top 10 Season-Defining Incidents

Though the year hardly ended on a positive note, it was still one filled with lots to get excited about. There were good times, and there were bad times. Here’s H-TEN’s look back at the season, with the ten biggest things that defined it.

10) Kakefu Sheds Uniform for the Last Time

As you may well know, Masayuki Kakefu was the team’s premier hitter in the late 1970s and 1980s. He leads the team in all-time home runs. He has also been a TV personality for years as well. Then at the end of the 2015 season, he was named as the club’s farm manager. Everyone was excited – #31 was back! The stands at Naruohama filled up every time the club played a game there. He stayed after practice and games to sign autographs for fans. He gave out free baseball cards that he had autographed himself. But unfortunately, there was (allegedly) also a bit of a rift between his philosophy and that of top squad manager Tomoaki Kanemoto. The result was that the man sitting lower on the totem pole got the squeeze. Despite a new position in the front office (Senior Executive Advisor), many a fan bemoans his dismissal.

9) Three Beloved Tigers Step Down

Every year, Father Time taps a Tiger or two on the shoulder, calling him to put away the cleats and take out the walker. This year, three men stepped away from the game. While none will go down as all-time greats, they each had their own impact on the team.

Yuya Andoh played 16 seasons for the Tigers, and fulfilled the role of starter, mid-reliever, and closer at different stages. He was even Opening Day starter 3 years in a row (2008-10). This year, his 40th on the planet (he just turned 40 yesterday, as a matter of fact), he did not once get called up to the top squad, despite numbers on the farm that indicated he was good to go. Still, he admits his pitches were not what they used to be, and that he was not as sharp as the younger guys who were definitely ahead of him on the depth chart.

Keisuke Kanoh did Andoh one better, playing 17 seasons in pinstripes. He bloomed late and never really found a good position in the field where he could get regular playing time. He caught full time one season, but in his twilight years, found himself pinch hitting more often than not. His clutch hits in recent years brought him a decent following among fans, but 2017 saw him get called up twice and never recording a single hit.

Ryota Arai actually spent just over half his career with the Tigers. He was acquired in a trade with the Chunichi Dragons in 2011 after five seasons with them. He never got much playing time with the Koalas, but blossomed into a power-hitting clean-up hitter with the Tigers, especially in 2013 and 2014. After that, he declined quickly and sharply, and saw his numbers get uglier and uglier. With every flip of the calendar we saw fewer and fewer bat flips, and now all that is left is a bunch of female adorers wiping away their tears with their pink-and-white #32 jerseys.

8) Pennant Slips AwayTwice

Did you know that the Tigers were actually in first place for part of this season? That’s right. They took top spot on May 6 and held it for about 3 weeks. After interleague, the team was still within striking distance of the Hiroshima Carp. But including the final two games against the Pacific, the team lost 8 straight, including 2 to the Carp, 3 to the Dragons, and 1 to the Swallows. That was enough to widen the gap, bring the team to just 4 games above .500, and take away any hopes of staying in contention much of the year.

But then August happened. The team actually played a really solid month in spite of being on the road for most of it. The return home also yielded 5 straight wins. The team was within 4.5 games of the Carp and would play a crucial series in Hiroshima at the start of September. Walk-off loss. Walk-off loss. Blown lead loss. Pennant back out of reach.

7) Starting Pitching – Wows, Woes and Whoas

First off, Randy Messenger was Randy Messenger. Outstanding from Opening Day until his bone-cracking injury in mid-August. He once again established himself as the team ace, winning CL Pitcher of the Month in April and moving into 5th in career strikeouts in club history. The injury that was supposed to end his season? Well, there was no stopping the tough guy from making a late-season return. He struck out 7 straight batters in his final regular season start, and then threw 6 shutout innings in the playoffs. There is no doubt as to who the man is. Oh, and he even hit a home run, the first of his career.

Another pitcher stepped up his game big-time: Takumi Akiyama. Long hailed as a future ace, the 26-year old found himself running short on time. Something obviously clicked this year, as he piled up a team-high 12 wins and finished with an ERA south of 3. Oh, and he even hit a home run, the first of his career.

On the other side of the coin were two guys who failed to earn their coins this year. Yuta Iwasada, he of the 10 wins in 2016, failed to find his control and his deceiving pitches in 2017. He bounced back and forth from the farm to the top squad, looking like 2016 at times, but more like 2015 much of the season.

And there there was Shintaro Fujinami. He started his career with a bang and a whole lot of buzz, but ever since suffering an injury late in 2015, and then perhaps having it compounded by a ridiculous 161-pitch outing in 2016, he looked lost for much of 2017. Case in point…

6) The Failed Dropkick

In Fujinami’s first start of the season, he struggled to get the ball over the plate. Me and my buddies tried before the game to predict how many walks he would throw. Our guesses combined to fall short of his final number. His last free pass was a ball that looked a lot like it hit Yakult Swallows‘ first baseman Kazuhiro Hatakeyama right in the helmet. Both benches cleared, and when battery coach Akihiro Yano came to Shintaro’s defense, he got pushed by ruffian Wladmir Balentien. Incensed, Yano got up and charged the big Danish thug, feebly attempting a “flying kick” (media’s words, not mine). He missed and got a further beating. All in all, not your average day at the park. Not by any means. Glad I was there to take it all in.

5) Relief Pitching – Historically Dominant

Never in a season had a quintet of relievers made 60 mound appearances in a single season for the same team. The Tigers accomplished the feat this year. But wait! So did the Yokohama DeNA BayStars! Yeah, but look at the difference in the numbers…

Suguru Iwazaki664101571.26322715880028192.391.26
Akifumi Takahashi616012047.229114015120991.700.90
Kentaro Kuwahara674203965.25221003632011111.510.94
Marcos Mateo637403659.04921703621026182.751.12
Rafael Dolis634437563.05311712858022192.711.11
Tomoya Mikami613303151.04781612291031295.121.24
Yoshiki Sunada621202554.25451313491125254.121.23
Kenjiro Tanaka601301148.14332301362026244.471.37
Spencer Patton624372760.05041932662019182.701.15
Yasuaki Yamasaki6842261565.25231301841016121.640.99

This takes nothing away from the solid bullpen that the BayStars had. But when you add Kyuji Fujikawa (50 GP) and second half star Tsuyoshi Ishizaki into the mix, and you have a once-in-a-decade type of bullpen. It wouldn’t have been this successful a season without these 5 + 2 guys.

4) Batman Returns

One of the most horrific scenes in all of baseball this season was Takashi Toritani‘s third at bat of the May 24 game against the Yomiuri Giants at Koshien Stadium. The ex-captain was hoping to help the team out with a hit, or at the very least by getting on base. He did, but not in the way he hoped. Pictures of the impact here. The prognosis was a broken nose. Apparently he called his wife from the hospital, and when his children heard about it, they said, “Daddy’s hurt again?” No one expected him to be back the next day. But…

The man is a cyborg, for sure. No way anyone can play the next day. Two days later, he removed the mask and was back in the starting lineup. Tough as nails.

3) No Joy in Mudville

A detailed breakdown of the scheduling issues that caused this game to happen can be found in this article. Let’s summarize it here in case you have a “no links” clause in your Internet contract. The first round of the Climax Series was scheduled to take place at Koshien Stadium on the weekend of October 14-15, with Game 3 set for October 16, and an emergency rain date on October 17. When Hanshin won Game 1, they needed just a tie or win in the next two games in order to advance. The problem: rain was in the forecast for Sunday and Monday. They had to play one of those days in order to ensure a proper series. And so, despite the rain being constant from Saturday night through Tuesday late morning, a game was played on Sunday. And it was not pretty.

The Tigers went on to lose it and also Game 3, which took place on a miraculously dry field on Tuesday, ending the season too soon. The conditions on Sunday affected both teams equally, so there’s no complaining that it ruined Hanshin’s playoff run. But it sure forces NPB to look at its scheduling and make some changes.

2) Ironman Hits One Milestone, Walks His Way to Another

He’s been a model of consistency his whole career. Never misses a game. Rarely misses an inning. Practices like he’s got something to prove. Makes a lot of hard plays look ordinary. All of Toritani’s hard work through his career resulted in his reaching two big milestones this season.

On September 8, he became the 50th man in NPB history to record 2000 hits. He is just the second homegrown talent to record 2000 hits with the Tigers. (The first was Taira Fujita, who played with the team from 1966-1984.) With 1999 on the Tori-meter, the Tigers came back home to Koshien Stadium to face the Yokohama DeNA BayStars. His first at bat saw the team down a couple of runs in the bottom of the second. He drove one over the second baseman, cashing in the runner. He would later come around to tie the game, and the team romped to victory.

Fast forward another month. It’s the team’s final game of regulation play. Another Tori-meter is being displayed throughout the stadium. This time, it’s stuck on 999. But in his last at bat of the year, Toritani did what he does best: watch pitches go by. He picked up his 1000th career walk, becoming just the 15th man in NPB history to reach the milestone.

When all’s said and done, chances are we’ll be talking about whether or not Toritani is the best player to ever don the Hanshin pinstripes. Great bounce back season, Birdman Batman Ironman!

1) Comeback for the Ages

Watch. Just watch. It might be the best 13 minutes in your day.

For the record, this was the first such comeback in the club’s 82-year history. But it wasn’t the biggest comeback Japanese baseball has ever seen. It wasn’t even the biggest of the season. Weeks later, the Yakult Swallows reversed a 10-run deficit against the Chunichi Dragons. But let me tell you, this was the most exciting game I have ever been at:

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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.

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