Madison Bumgarner, eat your heart out

Japanese ball may be famous for being overly dogmatic and choking on its old-school ways, but sometimes it does things right. I’m no fan of the pre-game home run derbies that typical mar the start of every year’s All-Star games, but this year was a huge improvement. A fan vote selected the four competitors for Friday’s pre-game derby in Fukuoka and Saturday’s pre-game derby in Yokohama — and unlike stodgy MLB, the fans wanted a pitcher to bat.




MLB may have Madison Bumgarner, but Japan — for the time being — has Shohei Otani, who was voted into both home run derbies. On Friday, Japan’s best pitcher, Otani of the Pacific League’s Nippon Ham Fighters went head-to-head with Japan’s best power hitter Tetsuto Yamada of the Central League’s Yakult Swallows — in the first round of the home run-hitting contest, and the pitcher won.




After dispatching last season’s CL MVP, Otani moved on to the final round, where he defeated last season’s PL MVP, Yuki Yanagita of the SoftBank Hawks.

On Saturday, Otani and former Atlanta Braves farmhand Ernesto Mejia will represent the PL against the same CL duo who competed on Friday, Yamada and DeNA BayStars cleanup hitter Yoshitomo Tsutsugo.

Former Yankee Kuroda stuck on 199

Hiroki Kuroda came up empty in his second attempt at his 200th career victory in top-flight pro ball as his Central League-leading Hiroshima Carp were shut out for the fourth time this season in a 6-0 loss to the Yomiuri Giants at Mazda Stadium.

Kuroda, who has 79 wins in MLB and 120 in NPB, fell to 6-5 on the season, in a game that was tight through five innings. The Carp had a chance in the bottom of the fifth with no outs and one on and trailing 1-0. Giants third baseman Shuichi Murata passed a reflex-test by leaping for a liner near the third-base bag for an out.

In the top of the sixth, the 41-year-old Kuroda came within an inch of working around a leadoff double. The threate started when 23-year-old rookie Yasuhiro Yamamoto put a great swing on a good splitter. After two ground outs, first baseman Takahiro Arai stabbed at a bad hop, but it deflected off his glove for an RBI single and Murata followed with his 11th home run of the season.

Kuroda made few mistakes early but luck was not on his side. The right-hander’s ERA rose to 3.10 after allowing six runs in 6-2/3 innings.




Also in the CL, Zach Petrick, in his first game since April 28 and his first start after seven relief appearances, allowed two runs in five innings and went 2-for-2 with two RBIs for rookie manager Alex Ramirez‘s DeNA BayStars in a 7-2 win over the Chunichi Dragons. Elian Herrera doubled twice, scored twice and drove in a run for the BayStars.

At Tokyo’s historic Jingu Stadium, evergreen outfielder Kosuke Fukudome went 3-for-4 with two walks, a home run and a tie-breaking, two-run, 11th-inning double to lead the Hanshin Tigers past last year’s CL champion Yakult Swallows.

In the Pacific League, Felix Perez, who homered in his first NPB at-bat on Tuesday, delivered an encore on Wednesday, going 2-for-4 with 2 RBIs as the Rakuten Eagles came from behind to defeat the Seibu Lions at Seibu Prince Dome.




In Chiba, Kodai Senga allowed three hits but no walks over eight innings as the league-leading SoftBank Hawks beat the Lotte Marines 3-0, shutting the third-place club out for the second straight night.

In Osaka, the second-place Nippon Ham Fighters regrouped to beat the Orix Buffaloes 3-2 behind a three-run double from Sho Nakata. Former New York Yankee Chris Martin worked a 1-2-3 ninth to earn his 10th save since being promoted to closer on June 19.

Here’s the PL TV replay of Nakata’s double:

All good things must end, Fighters KO’ed after 15 wins

And so must streaks. Three wins shy of the NPB record for consecutive wins, the Nippon Ham Fighters’ winning streak ended at 15 on Tuesday night in a 4-3 loss in Osaka to the Orix Buffaloes. As mentioned on this week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast, Orix has played with a little more spark since bringing up a bus load of players from the farm team a week ago and telling them to go out and play.

Shohei Otani batted for the first time in a week and didn’t have much of an impact, going 1-for-3 with a walk — although he did hit one on the screws for an out that nearly took shortstop Ryoichi Adachi’s glove off.




Otani, who is unlikely to pitch in the All-Star games — Japan typically has two — because of a blister on the middle finger of his right hand, might hit and might participate in one of the home run derbies if he is selected in the fan vote. By having him available to play — but not pitch — the Fighters may be able to avoid the 10-game, post-break suspension that goes to all-stars who fail to report for the game.

The Fighters’ loss dropped them six games back of the Pacific League-leading SoftBank Hawks, who earned their seventh shutout victory of the season, beating the Lotte Marines 4-0 at Tokyo Dome behind seven innings from Shota Takeda, who allowed just two hits but walked five.

At Seibu Prince Dome, Felix Perez hit a two-run, first-inning home run off Felipe Paulino to spark the Rakuten Eagles to a 5-1 win over the Seibu Lions. In doing so, Perez became the first player in the Eagles’ 12-year history to homer in his first NPB at-bat.

In the Central League, the Yomiuri Giants traveled to Hiroshima and were full of vinegar after a three-game home sweep of the DeNA BayStars. But lefty ace Tetsuya Utsumi didn’t have much to offer and the second-tier relievers got mauled by the CL-leading Carp in an ugly 13-3 loss.




The BayStars bounced back at home, where Samurai NPB cleanup hitter Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (OK, I know he’s not THE cleanup hitter, but he is the guy who should be batting fourth to spare us from Sho Nakata) homered twice and former Seattle Mariner and Yomiuri Giant Jose Lopez cracked a sayonara homer off luckless Chunichi Dragons reliever Daisuke Yamai (0-8) in a 6-5 win.

In the other CL game, Randy Messenger held Yakult to a run over seven innings, and the Tigers waited until submarine right-hander Hirofumi Yamanaka had finished his seven scoreless innings to strike in a 3-1 victory at Nagano Olympic Stadium.

On tap for Wednesday, the Giants will take a second crack at the Carp, who will try for the second time to help Hiroki Kuroda earn his 121st NPB victory — giving him 200 in top-flight pro ball when added to the 79 wins he earned for the Dodgers and Yankees.




They call him the streak: Yoshikawa man of the moment

You’ve heard of streaky hitters? Mitsuo Yoshikawa is a streak pitcher. On Monday evening in Osaka, the Nippon Ham Fighters lefty survived a dodgy start against the Orix Buffaloes at Kyocera Dome Osaka to earn the win, the Fighters’ 15th in a row. Yoshikawa worked 5-1/3 scoreless innings, but left the game with the bases loaded.




Nine years ago, on June 8, Yoshikawa toed the rubber for the Fighters in a June 8 interleague game at Matsuyama’s Botchan Stadium against the Yakult Swallows. The Fighters entered having won 13 in a row and were en route to their second straight Pacific League championshp. In that game, too, Yoshikawa was seemingly in over his head. He surrendered no runs despite giving up seven hits and four walks. Fernando Seguignol decided the game with a two-run homer off Shohei Tateyama — one of the CL’s most successful interleague pitchers, and the Fighters won a franchise-record 14th straight game. Yu Darvish, of all people, lost the next game to see the streak end.




Fighters streak survives Otani sputter

So much of the news about the Nippon Ham Fighters this year has centered around Shohei Otani, whether he’s hitting or pitching or both. But on Sunday, the Fighters matched Nippon Professional Baseball’s longest win streak since Nippon Ham won 14 straight under current Astros bench coach Trey Hillman. And the 14th win came despite a poor outing from Otani.

Otani had won his previous seven starts, in which he batted in six of them — despite pitching in a DH league — and moonlighting on weekdays as the Fighters’ designated hitter. But on Sunday, out of the batting order for the first time since May, Otani allowed three runs in 6-1/3 innings, while giving up five hits, walking two, hitting one and striking out eight.




The Fighters came back from a five-run deficit to tie it in the ninth on a Kensuke Tanaka solo homer off Lotte Marines closer Yuji Nishino, and Brandon Laird hit his 25th home run of the Pacific League season in the 12th inning, without which the game would have ended in a 5-5 tie at Sapporo Dome.

Otani left the mound in the seventh with a ruptured blister on the middle finger of his right hand, and the Fighters are saying it is unlikely he’ll pitch in this weekend’s all-star games.

“I don’t know how it will turn out. I’ll try to recover to be able to pitch, but I fear it’s probably not possible. It’s looking bleak,” said Otani according to Kyodo News.

A Fighters trainer said there are no issues with him batting at the all-star games scheduled on Friday and Saturday — Otani is likely to be voted into one of the pregame home run derbies.

Manager Hideki Kuriyama said, “We’ll do our utmost for him to be able to pitch.”

If so, he’ll need to take things one step at a time. Famous for his batting as for his speed off the mound, umpire Yoshiharu Yamaguchi and Fighters catcher Shota Ono tested Otani’s reflexes with a different kind of challenge on Sunday:




The 1,172nd day after for Yoshinori Sato

The next step sometimes take a while. When Yakult Swallows flame thrower Yoshinori Sato left the mound on Sept. 3, 2011, little did he know his next start for the Central League club would not occur until Saturday night.

Nine months after becoming the fastest Japanese pitcher on record, with a fastball clocked at 161 kilometers per hour (100 mph), Sato began struggling with oblique muscle pain early in the 2011 season. And though he had a decent season — a 7-6 record with a 2.86 ERA in 15 games, in September, he suffered from stiffness in his shoulder that was diagnosed as rotator cuff trouble.

Here’s the youtube video of his fastest recorded pitch (against Terrmel Sledge).




The following year, more shoulder discomfort was followed by a fracture in his left shin. In 2014, he had the shoulder cleaned out, and pitched in the 2015 preseason. Last year, he was limited to just six farm games and was cut at the end of the season. Sato rejoined the team on a developmental contract — and worked his way back to the point where a team desperate for pitching, such as the Swallows, would want him.




His start against the Dragons, 1,171 days after his last first-team game, was not much to behold. Sato had some command of his pitches but not great velocity or location and surrendered six runs, five earned, in five-plus innings.

“I didn’t contribute to a win, but I left the start line, at last,” Sato, whose fastest pitch was clocked at 149 kph, told reporters after the game.

Here’s his first inning on Saturday:

Pitching coach Shingo Takatsu said, “This is the starting point. It will be OK if he can make steady progress from here.




Kanemoto goes old school with Fujinami

Having thrown 131 pitches through seven innings at rainy Koshien Stadium on Friday night, Hanshin Tigers manage Tomoaki Kanemoto sent right-hander Shintaro Fujinami back out to face the visitors in the top of the eighth inning. He allowed three runs on three hits and a walk, while hitting a batter before leaving the mound after 161 pitches.

After the game, Kanemoto said — according to Sankei Sports  that his purpose was to teach the 22-year-old a lesson.「(藤浪は)立ち上がりがすべて。四球から崩れて…。今日は何球投げようが、何点取られようが最後まで投げさせるつもりだった。(エースとしての)責任は感じてほしい。感じないといけないと思う。立場として」

Roughly translated: “The way he (Fujinami) opened the game was everything. The walks ruined him. My intent was that he was going to throw until the end, however many pitches he threw and however many runs he allowed. I want him to feel the responsibility (that comes with being an ace). I think that’s what he has to feel.”




On Saturday, when Fujinami goes out and begins to inventory the inflammation, his arm will know exactly what it felt like to be an ace back in the days when Kanemoto was coming up as a young player in the mid 1990s. In those days, former Carp player and manager Marty Brown said he recalled Kanemoto and other rookies being taken to the side and having balls thrown at them to instruct them. Hooray for old school



It was the highest pitch count of the season and the highest by a pitcher not named Hideaki “Don’t take the ball from me, I know where you live”) Wakui in nearly eight years. There have been 10, 160-pitch games since the start of the 2006 season, and Fujinami’s start brought on some serious nostalgia. One of the things that fascinated me about NPB when I arrived here 30-plus years ago was the inclusion of pitch counts in the daily box scores that were printed in the different daily sports papers.

Ten years later, when I began writing analytical guides to Japanese baseball, I asked people in the game, “Why do you let pitchers throw so many pitches?” The answer I often got was a surprise.

“We know it is bad for the pitchers’ arms, but this is what we do in Japan.”




Obviously, that is no longer the answer, perhaps because of the large number of outstanding young pitchers in the 1990s whose arms did not last long enough for them to become good veteran pitchers — at least without Tommy John surgery.

Looking through my 1997 Guide to Japanese Baseball, I see 12 games between 170-199 pitches in 1996, and 51 games with between 150-169 pitches. Including Friday’s little gem, there have 47 games (nine by Wakui) since the start of the 2006 season in which a starter was allowed to throw 150+ pitches, that’s 12 times less common than they were 20 years ago. I’m just guessing, but if I look at my first guide, published in 1994, there would be some 200-pitch games.




Side-armer Aoyagi gives Tigers new look

As John E. Gibson is fond of saying, NPB’s month-long interleague season from the end of May is a time for testing out new players against the other league, and such was the case for Koyo Aoyagi. After three interleague starts and one relief appearance the Hanshin Tigers side-armer was deemed ready for Central League opponents.

The right-hander, whose fastball was sitting at 141 kilometers per hour (87 mph) had some trouble locating, but good action on his two-seamer, his change and slider against the Yomiuri Giants on Thursday night at Tokyo Dome in a 6-0 Tigers victory.




The 22-year-old Aoyagi, the Tigers’ fifth pick out of Teikyo University last autumn, worked inside consistently and walked four hitters over seven innings, while striking out six.

“I was extremely nervous, but was able to relax after my teammates scored some early runs for me (two in the first),” Aoyagi said.

As has been the case this season, the win saw some productive at-bats by young Tigers hitters, in this case 23-year-olds Taiga Egoshi and Masahiro Nakatani.

In Thursday’s other CL game, DeNA BayStars outfielder Yoshitomo Tsutusgo became the first left-handed hitter in franchise history to reach 20 homers in three straight seasons, as he brought DeNA from behind with a three-run homer and an RBI single in a 5-3 win over the Yakult Swallows.




In the Pacific League, the league-leading Sho Iwasaki threw his first shutout in five years as the SoftBank Hawks spoiled the return of Orix Buffaloes ace Chihiro Kaneko, who surrendered home runs to Seiichi Uchikawa and Nobuhiro Matsuda at Kyocera Dome in Osaka. Iwasaki went 6-2 in 2011, when NPB forced all teams to use the same ball and chose a particularly dead one. When the ball was livened up in 2013, Iwasaki’s ERA floated up to the point where he became barely usable.

Except for a one-out single and a walk before Uchikawa came to the plate in the first, Kaneko was solid for Orix, allowing three hits and a walk, while striking out seven over seven innings.

In the other PL game, the Lotte Marines beat the Seibu Lions 4-3, getting their second straight solid effort from right-hander Yuki Karakawa.




Tough night for Kuroda, Tateyama

Wednesday night was supposed to be a crowning achievement for Hiroki Kuroda, his 200th career win in top-flight pro ball. But the Chunichi Dragons were not having any of it in their home game in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture.

“We didn’t want to be the ones he beat for his 200th win, so to Mr. Kuroda I want to say, ‘Please get it next week,'” Dragons captain Ryosuke Hirata said on the postgame hero podium after a 4-1 victory over the Central League-leading Carp.




Kuroda, who fell to 6-4 as he failed to win his third straight decision, allowed three runs, two earned, in six innings. He didn’t walk a batter but did strike out two.

“The bottom line is that when I left pitches up in the zone, they put good swings on them,” Kuroda said according to Kyodo News.

Until Kuroda reaches the milestone, Hideo Nomo remains the only Japanese pitcher to work in the majors and reach 200 wins.
“As a ballplayer, I’m not catching up with Mr. Nomo, but I might feel so if I look only at that number. To have come even a little closer to a great pitcher, then it makes me happy to have played baseball.”

On the same night, another veteran was also denied a place in the spotlight. The Yakult Swallows’ Shohei Tateyama, who returned to the mound last year after his third Tommy John surgery, started this season 0-2 before having his right elbow cleaned out with an arthroscope in April. He returned to the mound earlier than expected and was in line for his first win — until a 3-2 pitch to Elian Herrera was rocketed over the wall in Yokohama Stadium in the eighth inning.

The grand slam was Herrera’s first homer in Japan. Closer Yasuaki Yamasaki surrendered two runs in the ninth, but the DeNA BayStars held on for an 8-7 win over last year’s CL champions.