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.
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 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.
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.
Watching the implementation of NPB’s new collision rule for a couple of months has been pretty painful. We’ve seen gun-shy catchers setting up for throws 10 feet from home plate to protect themselves from trigger-happy umpires and then be unable to reach the runner and make a tag.
Another scene that has played out twice in the past week was when a player not obstructing the baseline in any sense of the word was found to have violated the rule about fielders being in the baseline unless a throw takes them there. It looks stupid as all get out in both cases, since the runner had clear access to home base in each case, was tagged easily, and called out by the home plate ump — only to have crew chief Masanobu Sugiyama overturn the calls on video review.
The majors, which would like to get rid of all collisions but can’t seem to say so, have resorted to trying to define the scope under which “hard-nosed, old-time baseball crashes” can still occur and is struggling. In Japan, however, the mandate was to eliminate collisions at home plate, so the rules went beyond MLB’s. Unlike MLB, a fielder has no right to stand between a runner and home plate — even when he has the ball in his possession. The catcher can NEVER block home plate and the runner cannot initiate contact with a player covering home.
The only exception is when the umpire rules that the act of catching a ball puts the fielder in the baseline.
Osamu Ino, the gentleman who chairs NPB’s umpiring technical committee, and by the way also sits on Japan’s Rules Committee — NPB’s rules can’t be changed unless the amateurs sign off on it — tried to explain the process to me two days after the first out at home was overturned on video review by Suginaga.
“We wanted to get rid of collisions, the players union wanted that, too,” Ino said. “We thought about just adopting MLB’s rules, but we were concerned that if there was a way to block the plate or obstruct the base path with the ball, Japanese players would do it and collisions would still occur. I think it is something to do with our national character.”
What he was saying was not that Japanese players would cheat, but that a crystal clear definition of what was legal and what wasn’t was needed.
Then a wonderful quote came today from Japan rugby international Kensuke Hatakeyama and I suddenly understood Ino’s dilemma. After playing overseas the past few months, Hatakeyama made a number of observations, including this priceless one to my colleagues from Kyodo News in England a few days ago. He’s talking about the importance of teaching Japanese the right way to do something. (I’ll post the original Japanese at the end so anyone who has a better take on the quote can chip in.)
“If you go in the wrong direction, the Japanese will collectively go that way and that’s that. If a coach says (to Japanese) to cross on a red light, Japanese will mistakenly walk into the street and ‘Wham’ get run over.”
The plays at Seibu Prince Dome a week ago Friday and at Koshien Stadium on Wednesday, caused numerous heads to turn. But it seems that after decades of being instructed to ignore the obstruction rule at home plate, the umpires have been instructed clearly to interpret the rule as follows:
Neither the third base line including home plate can be occupied by a fielder. Because of this, fielders cannot prepare to make tags as they would at any other base. They not only have to give the runner a clear path to the base, but it has to be the prescribed path.
In the case of Wednesday’s game. Hanshin Tigers catcher Fumihito Haraguchi was straddling the plate. The base line was open, home plate was open. He gave the runner a lane to the plate, unfortunately the lane he provided was between his legs — and thus according to NPB’s narrow interpretation, he was risking a collision — which is of course nonsense. But Hatakeyama’s thoughts helped me understand how Japanese umpires could pretend obstruction wasn’t in the rule book last year, while now pointing to the rule book and enforcing the new rule to the 10th decimal place.
On Thursday, Yakult Swallows manager Mitsuru Manaka engaged the media with a 20-minute discussion about the rule and its interpretation.
“It’s very ambiguous,” he said — meaning there is a gap between the wording 0f giving the runner a clear lane — and the unwritten prescription that the lane is the third base line and all the air space above it.
“This implementation is Japanese. We tend to be anal retentive in these things.”
Next year, NPB will outlaw interference by runners on fielders attempting to make throws, which is the way the game is going, more toward speed and athleticism and less toward collisions in the name of “playing the game the right way.”
In MLB, ostensibly a runner has free reign to wreck havoc on middle infielders’ bodies PROVIDED he makes a bona fide slide into second base and never gives up the bag. Eventually, that sort of language will be replaced by what they’re trying to do in Japan, which is make a rule that states clearly that the purpose is to avoid injury and interference at the bag.
Ino said it will take a few iterations to get the home plate collision rule right, but at least the goal of Japan’s rule is clearly stated.
SoftBank Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo was enraged to see his second baseman, Keizo Kawashima, taken out on a slide by Nippon Ham Fighters and former major leaguer Kensuke Tanaka, and argued the play was dangerous. Dangerous or not, it was not against the rules, which allow runners on the base path to interfere with fielders — except when they are batting fielded balls. Them’s the rules. As Casey Stengel famously said, “You can look it up.”
Which raises a question or two.
Why the heck was Kudo arguing about something that wasn’t against the rules? The umpires confirmed that by saying Tanaka did not leave the base path, which was never in question. Kudo’s point was that in Japan, where players rarely put opponents physically at risk regardless of rules that allow them to, the play was dangerous and SHOULDN’T BE permitted.
What the heck were managers doing during the 30 years I’ve watched NPB games by not arguing for obstruction calls at home plate or phantom outs at second base on double plays — which were always against the rules?
At least this time, umpire Masanobu Sasaki could fall back on what the rule book actually says. And now, the umps will proudly point to the rule and warn (and threaten with ejection) any catcher with the temerity of blocking the plate without the ball –which though illegal was considered a catcher’s duty until Feb. 1 , 2016, when players reported for camp.
What would he have said a year ago… “Uhm it’s the rule, you CAN obstruct the plate. Well, OK, you can’t technically block the plate without the ball, but we all know that you can, because IN THIS CASE we ignore the rules.
After 179 innings to start the season, the Pacific League had its first home runs on Tuesday, when Daichi Suzuki of the Lotte Marines muscled up to put two over the fence in Chiba in a 12-2 butt-kicking of Rakuten, that was uglier than the score looked. Once the Eagles were behind they played and pitched badly.
In Fukuoka, Seibu Lions ace Takayuki Kishi got his season started with seven scoreless innings against the SoftBank Hawks. Kishi, who was pushed back from the home opening series against Orix so he could pitch against the two-time defending Japan Series champs, improved his ERA at Fukuoka Dome to 2.16.
Last autumn, former teammate Dennis Sarfate said Seibu keeps its home mound soft and sandy for submarine right-hander Kazuhisa Makita, and Kishi’s ERA there is higher than at any main park in the PL. I’d show you a table of Kishi’s career, but my table-making plug in isn’t cooperating tonight. Anyway, he’s 35-22 with a 2.61 ERA at the other main PL parks, and only slightly better at home (44-27, 3.72 ERA).
The game saw former Chicago Cub lefty Tsuyoshi Wada pitching in Fukuoka Dome for the first time since 2011. Watching Lions batters swat his pitches this way and that, you could almost here him saying under his breath, “what’s wrong with these guys? How do you expect me to get anybody out when they don’t try to hit everything out of the park?”
In Sapporo, ace pitcher Shohei Otani was in the batting order as designated hitter for the first time in the young season. His sac fly made it 2-0 in the Fighters’ home opener. Leading 5-0, he cleared the fence in left center for a three-run homer and finished his night with an RBI single. Five RBIs were his career high. The game ended in a 13-3 blood letting of the Orix Buffaloes, who fell to 1-3.
In the Central League, the Yomiuri Giants rolled to their fourth straight win under new manager Yoshinobu Takahashi and putting a damper on former teammate Alex Ramirez’s home opener as new manager of the Yokohama DeNA BayStars.
There were highlights for the BayStars, however, as their top draft pick, lefty Shota Imanaga struck out nine batters in seven innings, but missed with some fat pitches and surrendered three home runs in the 6-2 loss. The BayStars showed some fight in the ninth, when closer Hirokazu Sawamura was forced to come in and get the final out.
At Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium, the league champion Yakult Swallows also showed some fight in the ninth inning, when rookie Tigers manager Tomoaki Kanemoto left his young right-hander Shintaro Fujinami in the game to throw 149 pitches in 8-2/3 innings and also had to call on his closer, Marcos Mateo — who survived some iffy control to shut the door on a 6-2 win. The Swallows have now lost four straight games to start the season for the first time in nine years.
At Nagoya Dome, the Hiroshima Carp blew a two-run lead, when the Chunichi Dragons scored four times in the sixth against loser Yusuke Nomura (0-1), and Brazil international Oscar Nakaoshi. Cuban Dayan Viciedo helped spark the winning rally with a one-out double and scored the tying run.
21-year-old Dragons right-hander Shunta Wakamatsu (1-0) got some mileage out of his trademark changeup to strike out 10 batters in six innings.
It was great catching up with Fernando Seguignol the other day at QVC Marine Field before the Chiba Lotte Marines opened the season against the Nippon Ham Fighters. As we were talking on the field, I noticed Takaaki Ishibashi was a few feet behind us in front of the visiting dugout, where he had his picture taken with Fighters cleanup hitter Sho Nakata.
So I asked Segi if he wanted to have his picture with Ishibashi, to which he replied, “I saw it 12 times,” and proceeded to mimic Ishibashi’s iconic pose from the movie. Ishibashi was gracious to pose with Segi as you see.
Seguignol is currently in Japan, scouting for the Cubs, which means his job has switched from looking for guys on the margin who might produce in Japan to looking for guys in Japan who might have value in the majors. Perhaps like this guy:
The Yomiuri Giants are NPB’s only undefeated team after the first weekend of games, having swept the Central League champion Yakult Swallows at Tokyo Dome. The Pacific League’s Seibu Lions and Chiba Lotte Marines had a shot going into Sunday, but each dropped a one-run decision.
A year ag0, the Orix Buffaloes opened their season to the highest of expectations, only to be swept in three straight at Seibu Prince Dome. Brandon Dickson, who a year ago filled in for rehabbing ace Chihiro Kaneko, allowed a run in seven innings on Opening Day as the Buffaloes suffered a 1-0 loss. Dickson was back on the mound a year later trying to keep the Buffaloes from being swept again.
The 1.95-meter right-hander was unable to hold his early three-run lead with his control off and the Lions able to hit ground balls around shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima, who looked really good when he could drop to one knee, scoop up a grounder hit straight to him and snap a throw off to second. When forced to get good jumps and reads, he looked like it had been four years since he was the Lions’ regular shortstop.
Luis Cruz sat in the Yomiuri Giants’ dugout on Saturday explaining that he lacks the power to hit home runs when he just barely misses the sweet spot –showing the mark on his bat left by his seventh inning double on Opening Day.
Cruz just missed on Opening Day, but launched a three-run homer 15 rows back in left on Saturday afternoon. The Giants got past the Swallows 3-1 on Friday and pretty much embarassed the Central League champs 10-5 on Saturday in their first two games under Yoshinobu Takahashi.
In Hiroshima, new DeNA BayStars skipper Alex Ramirez got his first win, a 2-1 decision over the Carp, who started 2015 CL ERA leader Kris Johnson. The BayStars got a two-run single from rookie second baseman Tatsuhiro Shibata and seven scoreless innings from Shoichi Ino, who was named to fill in on Opening Day just a few days before.
The Carp recovered the next day, when Hiroki Kuroda got hit but gutted it out with runners in scoring position to hold DeNA to just a run in seven innings. One of Ramirez’s two priorities has been to sharpen his catchers’ pitch-calling skills and improve situational play. They lost the second game at Mazda Stadium 3-1 , so the situational hitting seems to be just as big a problem for both teams, as it was for the Carp last year.
In Osaka, future Hall of Famer Tomoaki Kanemoto split his first two games in charge of the Hanshin Tigers, winning 7-3 on Saturday after dropping Friday’s opener 5-2 to the Chunichi Dragons.
The big star of the series so far has been Chunichi’s Cuban first baseman Dayan Viciedo, who was 2-for-5 with a two-run jack in the opener and 3-for-4 with a solo homer the following day.
In the Pacific League, the SoftBank Hawks pursuit of a third straight Japan Series championship began with a loss in the Sendai home of the Rakuten Eagles, who finished last in each of the previous two seasons.
Hawks “Ace” Tadashi Settsu got hammered for six runs in five innings in the opener, in which Jonny Gomes made his Japan debut with two runs and three walks in a 7-3 as veteran skipper Masataka Nashida won his first game with his third club. The Eagles came from behind in the eighth inning against Rick van den Hurk in the second game, which ended in a 3-3 tie after finishing the maximum 12 innings. Zelous Wheeler, playing in left for the Eagles, made a gutsy catch in the 10th inning to put the damper on the Hawks’ best late-inning scoring opportunity.
Alfredo Despaigne was one of the heroes of both of the Chiba Lotte Marines’ first two wins over the Nippon Ham Fighters in Chiba, driving in the game-winning run in both games. The Marines got three early runs off Shohei Otani, who was hitting 160 kph (99 mph) despite a temperature at game time just above freezing. The Marines took the opener 3-2, and came from behind to win the next day 6-4, in which Despaigne — having attended his first spring training in his third Japanese season — went 3-for-4 with two doubles.
“Cuban pitching is so different from Japanese pitching,” he said Friday. “So being here longer before the season has made it easier.”
After setting Japan’s single-season hit record last season, with the media making the necessary fuss about his hit total, one wonders if anyone was put out by the Seibu Lions’ Shogo Akiyama only getting an RBI double on Friday but drawing three walks and scoring two runs in the Lions’ come-from-behind 5-4 victory over the Orix Buffaloes at Seibu Prince Dome.
Akiyama was back “in form” the next day, when the Lions overcame a 5-0 first-inning deficit to beat the Buffaloes 9-5 with Akiyama scoring twice again, but this time with three hits — probably to the great relief of those who want to write about whether he can break his own record this season.
The Central League rival Yomiuri Giants used to take the field at Tokyo Dome in to the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up,” but it would work just as well for Hanshin Tigers returnee Kyuji Fujikawa. With 220 NPB saves under his belt, the right-hander is being groomed for a return to the mound as a starter for the first time since 2003.
On Sunday, Fujikawa threw five hitless innings against the Nippon Ham Fighters in his second spring start. My colleague at Kyodo wrote, “Fujikawa mixed in a lot of breaking balls,” with “a lot” for Fujikawa meaning four curves in 55 pitches, although an occasional cutter and two-seamer also appeared.
After a lifetime of getting swings and misses by shifting between his forkball and four-seam fastball, Fujikawa preached the gospel according to Crash:
“If you take a long-term view, it’s good to have balance, throw a variety of pitches and get batters to put the ball in play. Going forward, I think that is going to be essential.”
Sho Nakata of the Fighters said, “Rather than being fast, his pitches felt fast.”
How’s that for a complement?
In other news around NPB, Seibu Lions right-hander Kona Takahashi got hammered in an Eastern League game and his status as a member of the Lions starting rotation is currently on hold.
And just when you thought his name wouldn’t pop up again for a while, three scoreless innings in the same game has put the Fighters’ Yuki Saito back in the media’s radar. Another game or two should fix that.
Johnny Gomes hit his second homer of the spring for the Rakuten Eagles, while Jason Pridie hit a come-from-behind two-run shot for the Hiroshima Carp, to hand Hiroki Kuroda a pre-season win.
In Fukuoka, the two-time defending champion SoftBank Hawks improved to 9-0 with three ties in the spring with Shota Takeda saying he wants to be efficient with his pitches so that he has the gas to strike batters out with runners on third. The rationale is that since Japan’s umpires will no longer ignore the rule against catchers blocking the plate without the ball, infield grounders will more easily result in runs being scored.
A few months into his new gig as DeNA BayStars manager, Alex Ramirez revealed Wednesday that the job is not as easy as it looks.
“Every day is a learning experience,” Ramirez said before his team played the Nippon Ham Fighters at Fighters Stadium in Kamagaya, Chiba Prefecture. “There are things no one tells you.”
“The first time I went out to exchange the lineup card, we were playing the Swallows, and Manaka-san (manager Mitsuru Manaka) said, ‘Rami-chan, you’re the home team. You have to hand me your lineup first.’ And then when we were finished, we stood there and he said, ‘You have to shake the umpires’ hands first because you’re home.’
“Nobody tells you these things. The first few times I went out to make player changes, my interpreter went with me. After a few times, he said, ‘You can do it by yourself now.’ So I thought, ‘Yes. It’s not that hard.’ But the first time when I go up to the umpire by myself, my brain freezes and we have to call my interpreter over.”