DeNA Baystars top executive Kazuaki Mihara, the club’s official representative to Nippon Professional Baseball, apologized Monday for the front office’s inability to get any of its 10 imported players into action this season until this past week, Baseball King reported.
The BayStars, who dumped manager Alex Ramirez last autumn and replaced him with their minor league manager and former ace pitcher Daisuke Miura, have started the season 3-15 with three ties, an NPB-worst .167 winning percentage.
“We’ve kept battling under difficult circumstances, and are in the midst of a losing streak,” Mihara said. “The biggest reason for that is we were late getting our imported players into the country.”
“We are the people who are charged with creating the environment and talent needed, and we have failed to do our jobs.
Mihara didn’t explain what his team’s problem was. Most teams were able to get their returning imports back in a timely fashion even when non-residents were blocked from entering Japan. While a few players came to Japan a few weeks early and were able to enter and get to camp before a state of emergency tightened entry restrictions in January.
Marines vs Fighters: Zozo Marine Stadium 5:45 pm, 4:45 am EDT
At Koshien Stadium, Hanshin’s Joe Gunkel (4-0) allowed a run over six innings while he struck out six and singled to lead off the Tigers’ five-run third inning that chased Yakult’s Yasuhiro Ogawa (1-1). The Tigers’ win was their seventh straight.
Ogawa surrendered three straight no-out singles in the first but allowed only one run and worked a 1-2-3 second but couldn’t retire another batter. Kento Itohara doubled home Gunkel and leadoff man Koji Chikamoto. Jefry Marte, who hit a two-run homer in the fourth, walked and three more RBI singles appeared to put the game on ice.
Gunkel left after throwing 92 pitches, allowing the bullpen to make a mess of things. Tetsuto Yamada’s fifth home run, a three-run shot in the seventh, made it an 8-5 game. With a three-run ninth-inning lead, the Tigers called on their closer, Robert Suarez, who struck out two of the three batters he faced to notch his fifth save.
Carp 4, Dragons 2
At Nagoya’s Vantelin Dome, Kevin Cron returned to duty for the Hiroshima Carp for the first time since April 3, and singled, doubled, walked and drove in three runs to beat Chunichi.
Rookie Carp lefty Koya Takahashi worked five impressive innings, only for the Carp bullpen to blow a 2-1 lead in the sixth. Setup man Daisuke Sobue (0-2) who did yeoman work as the closer prior to Raidel Martinez’s arrival, loaded the bases in the eight with two walks and a single before Cron doubled in two runs.
Hiroshima lefty Atsuya Horie worked his seventh scoreless outing of the season to set up rookie Ryoji Kuribayashi for his sixth save.
Giants 2, BayStars 2
At Yokohama Stadium, the Yomiuri Giants got yet another strong starting pitching effort as Nobutaka Imamura allowed a run over 6-1/3 innings. The run he allowed, Neftali Soto’s first home run of the year for DeNA, trimmed the Giants’ lead to 2-1.
The BayStars scratched out the tying run in the eighth against lefty Kota Nakagawa on a hit batsman, a sacrifice, a groundout behind the runner and a Tyler Austin smash that third baseman Kazuma Okamoto couldn’t handle that was ruled an RBI infield single.
Flame-throwing Brazilian Thyago Vieira, who definitely looks more polished this season, touched 100.6 mph in a 1-2-3 ninth.
Hawks 4, Lions 4
At MetLife Dome, Seibu closer Tatsushi Masuda blew a two-run save opportunity by walking Alfredo Despaigne and surrendering Akira Nakamura’s first home run of the year before SoftBank closer Yuito Mori retired the Lions’ tail-end of the order to end the game in a nine-inning tie.
In a game without a marquee pitching matchup, the suddenly bunt-happy Lions still played for one run with a straight steal but got two to take a 2-1 first-inning lead against Yuki Matsumoto. Rookie Gakuto Wakabayashi singled, stole second, and scored on No. 2 hitter Sosuke Genda’s double.
Tomoya Mori tripled in the third on a perfectly placed high fly between right and center, but was thrown out by 10 feet at home trying to score on a fly to Yuki Yanagita in medium deep center. The Hawks tied it in the sixth. Singles by Ukyo Shuto and Yangita, who went 4-for-4 with a double, set up a run-scoring wild pitch by Seibu starter Katsunori Hirai.
With the scored tied in the seventh after Reed Garrett worked a scoreless inning of relief for Seibu, Brandon Tyson Tysinger singled, and once more the Lions went for one run and got two. A sacrifice and back-to-back doubles gave manager Hatsuhiko Tsuji more than he bargained for.
Kaima Taira worked around a one-out Yanagita double in the eighth, but Masuda walked Alfredo Despaigne and hung a first-pitch slider that Nakamura pulled for his first home run.
Eagles 4, Fighters 1
At Tokyo Dome, Rakuten rookie Takahisa Hayakawa (2-2) struck out seven without a walk while allowing a run over eight innings in a win over another Nippon Ham short-starter tag-team match.
Lefty Robbie Erlin allowed a run over two innings in his Japan debut. Kensuke Kondo gave the newcomer the lead with a first-inning homer before he gave it back in the second. Daichi Suzuki singled and scored on a sac fly after the visitors loaded the bases with no outs. Hideto Asamura scored the first of his two runs in the third off Chihiro Kaneko (0-1) on a walk, a wild pitch and an Eigoro Mogi single. Mogi, however, was thrown out trying to steal right before Daichi Suzuki tripled.
Suzuki also had an RBI single while rookie Fumiya Kurokawa doubled in another run. Lefty Yuki Matsui retired the side in order in the ninth for his fifth save.
Marines 3, Buffaloes 2
At Osaka’s Kyocera Dome, Lotte’s Leonys Martin doubled in one run, and drew a bases-loaded ninth-inning walk off Tyler Higgins (0-1) to push across the go-ahead run against the Orix Buffaloes.
Rookie lefty Hiroya Miyagi allowed a run over 6-2/3 innings and left with a lead afterAdam Jones doubled to break a 1-1 sixth-inning tie against Marines rookie Shota Suzuki.
Higgins, the Buffaloes’ fourth pitcher, lost leadoff hitter Brandon Laird on seven pitches, before walking Koki Yamaguchi. After a sacrifice and a fly out, Higgins was one strike away from earning the save before Hiromi Oka hit a nasty bouncer into the hole at short to plate the tying run.
Higgins proved unable to find the strike zone after that, and Naoya Masuda earned his third save in the ninth.
The Yomiuri Giants introduced Justin Smoak and Eric Thames on Tuesday, and we’re all pretty interested to see how they adapt to Japanese baseball.
I’m not going to try and project any numbers for them since the subtle differences hear pose different challenges to the ones they faced back home. It’s not merely a case of facing fewer MLB-caliber pitchers, but adjusting to the way they are pitched, not to mention all the cultural speed bumps that come at you.
But what if we assume these two 34-year-olds produce in Japan close to their MLB career norms? Thames had basically two MLB careers, one before he played in South Korea’s KBO, and one after. For him, we’ll use his time since he returned.
Here are the MLB slash lines I’ll use to find NPB comps:
Now we find the players who played a full season in NPB from 2013, when the current ball was introduced, and 2019 whose, average, OBP and slug were similar.
What hitters had full seasons comparable to their career slash lines:
Smoak: 125 games, 55 runs, 20 home runs, 68 RBIs and 45 walks
Thames: 131 games, 64 runs, 29 home runs, 81 RBIs and 57 walks
This doesn’t mean they WILL approach these numbers, but just one way of looking at one of any number of possible outcomes. All the guys in both comp groups were productive regulars, but if the Giants were expecting two 34-year-olds to come in and each hit 40 home runs over 143 games, they’re likely to be disappointed.
At Tokyo Dome, returning Rakuten star Masahiro Tanaka (0-1) started with seven good pitches before he began missing with his fastball, and that cost him the game, snapping his record streak of consecutive winning decisions in Japan at 28. He allowed three runs on four hits and a walk while striking out five over five innings.
Naoyuki Uwasawa (1-2), the Fighters Opening Day starter was razor sharp at the start and could easily have gone seven scoreless innings. He allowed a run on three hits and two walks while striking out seven.
Tanaka ran into trouble in the first with four high fastballs to Kensuke Kondo, Sho Nakata got a second chance when his pop fly was lost in the glare of Tokyo Dome’s translucent roof and Tanka missed with a fastball over the plate. It was Nakata’s first homer of the season.
“I think the spirt you guys invested in me all this time despite my being such a useless No. 4 hitter this year helped propel that ball out,” Nakata said of his first homer.
Nippon Ham’s Opening Day starter Naoyuki Uwasawa came out on fire, knocking down the three left-handed-hitting Eagles in the first by mixing perfectly located back-door sliders with fastballs on the outside corner. Hideto Asamura doubled to open the Eagles’ second and did well to beat the tag at home when rookie Fumiya Kurokawa celebrated his 20th birthday by singling in a grinding 10-pitch at-bat.
Tanaka, however, gave that run back with a misplaced a 1-0 fastball that Kazunari Ishii found and put in the seats for a leadoff homer in the bottom of the second. Tanaka, who is coming back from a calf-muscle injury suffered just before Opening Day, left after throwing 75 pitches in five innings.
With his slider working well and the cutter doing its job, Tanaka’s game began mimicking his MLB career as the four-seamer more or less disappeared. He went back to it now and then and threw some good ones, but it’s certain he’ll be doing his homework between now and next Saturday, when he’s slated to pitch against the Lions.
Nakata, who said his first homer against Tanaka allowed him to consider the game a reset for his season, joked about an incident a week earlier. He homered again in the sixth against former Padre Kazuhisa Makita. Nakata’s frustration had boiled over in an incident that involved him throwing his bat in the dugout and resulted in his having a swollen right eye that sidelined him for a game. “A lot of different things have happened. I had a swollen eye. And when the swelling went down, I took that as a sign that I would be destined to do the postgame hero interview,” Nakata told the fans after the game.
Hawks 7, Lions 1
At MetLife Dome, Rei Takahashi (1-1), the PL’s 2019 rookie of the year, allowed an unearned run over six inning in a comfortable start, while Nobuhiro Matsuda drove in three runs with a second-inning RBI single and a two-run fourth-inning homer off Lions lefty Shota Hamaya (1-3).
Yurisbel Gracial’s second home run in two nights made it 3-0 in the third as the Hawks piled on, allowing them to bring in Carter Stewart Jr. in the ninth for his top-flight debut.
The eighth overall pick in the 2018 MLB draft, Stewart signed a six-year deal with the Hawks in 2019. He missed with four fastballs to the first hitter, struck out the second on four pitches, jammed the third on his ninth fastball. He needed 10 pitches, one a really wild pitch, against the fourth batter he faced to end the game with a called third strike on a changeup.
Stewart’s debut sent a buzz through the crowd, but the analysts and announcers couldn’t get over his wearing No. 2 in a country where no pitchers get single digits. It just doesn’t happen, and it seemed about as intriguing to a lot of people as the zip on his fastball and the idea that a 21-year-old American could throw a good curveball.
“You usually don’t see foreign pitchers throw good curveballs,” Dave Okubo said, spoiling a night of clarity and insight on Pro Yakyu News, with an instant of mindless babble.
Marines 7, Buffaloes 2
At Osaka’s Kyocera Dome, Orix’s defense again looked not fatal but less than confidence-inspiring behind Sachiya Yamasaki (0-2), who allowed four runs, three earned, over 6-1/3 innings. Manabu Mima held Orix to two runs over 6-2/3 innings.
Shogo Nakamura reached base four times and scored three of Lotte’s runs. Leonys Martin doubled in a run in the seventh and scored on a single and a Nakamura single that big right fielder Yutaro Sugimoto couldn’t corral in right.
Sugimoto homered for the second straight game in the bottom of the sixth to make it a 4-2 game. Adam Jones drew a pinch-hit walk to put the tying runs on for the Buffaloes with two outs, but Frank Herrmann came in to put out the fire.
Yuki Karakawa, the next man in the Marines relief corps, worked a scoreless eighth before the Marines piled on two runs in the ninth to ice it.
Giants 7, BayStars 2
At Yokohama Stadium, the Yomiuri Giants broke a 1-1 tie in a six-run sixth inning against Taiga Kamichatani (0-2) that was jump-started by a two-out intentional walk and a two-run wild pitch and powered by a three-run home run from Katsuki Kazuki, the throw-away player the Giants scooped up in last year’s salary-dump trade of current Red Sox reliever Hirokazu Sawamura.
Shosei Togo (2-1) allowed a run on four walks and three hits over six innings. The 21-year-old right-hander struck out eight.
Kamichatani was charged with all seven runs on seven hits and three walks. He struck out seven.
Dragons 5, Carp 0
At Nagoya’s Vantelin Dome, Chunichi’s Yuya Yanagi (1-1) did a good right-handed impression of teammate Yudai Ono, striking out a career-high 14 batters over eight innings with a lot of beautifully executed pitches. His teammates, meanwhile, eventually got good swings on a lot of pitches from Allen Kuri (3-1), who was pulled after allowing three runs through seven innings.
Yanagi pitched out of a first-inning jam by striking out Seiya Suzuki before splintering Shogo Sakakura’s bat, and escaped a bases-loaded pickle in the third by getting the Carp catcher on a comebacker.
Kuri cruised through three innings but was stung for a run in the fourth on a Yohei Oshima single, a sacrifice and hanging breaking ball that Kosuke Fukudome pulled into the right-field corner for a 1-0 Dragons lead. With Yanagi carving up the Carp, the Dragons took over. Fukudome came within a hair of a second RBI double. He turned on a low inside fastball with two outs and a runner on, but first baseman Alejandro Mejia robbed him with a diving catch.
Ariel Martinez undressed third baseman Masaya Yano with a line drive for an infield single to trigger a two-run seventh, with Akira Neo putting a good swing on a low pitch to drive in two. Fukudome contributed two a two-run eighth with a one-out single.
It’s going to take a while to get used to seeing Masahiro Tanaka pitching for the Rakuten Eagles again.
For his 2021 debut on Saturday, he drew the last-place Nippon Ham Fighters. The Fighters entered the game having hit two home runs, which if you have to play someone in Tokyo Dome, should be a comforting thought. Before the game, in the midst of his constant chatter about how lovely the Fighters cheerleaders are and who well-dressed he was for the occasion of Tanaka’s return, analyst Tsutomu Iwamoto, said something interesting.
“Everyone in the ballpark is pumped. I’m pumped, the fans are pumped. The press box is packed and the stadium is buzzing, all for Tanaka,” Iwamoto said. “People want to see Tanaka, but what that means is the Fighters are going to be in the spotlight and sometimes that’s an opportunity.”
“Tanaka’s back and we all expect he’s going to energize Japan’s game, but I expected the Fighters are going to be energized and focused because this is their chance to go against a front-line major leaguer when everyone is watching.”
Without an opponent to play, you don’t have a game, and while a lot of people expected Tanaka to dominate, he was merely pretty good, and the Fighters were pumped.
My flashback had to do with Tanaka’s start on April 29, 2011. A month and a half after an earthquake and tsunami decimated much of northeastern Japan’s Pacific coast line, and eastern Japan was short on power due to a nuclear disaster, Tanaka started the Eagles’ home opener in Sendai.
The Eagles ballpark was on the side of the city that was ONLY hit by the enormous earthquake and aftershocks. I visited Sendai a day early to interview people and see what things were like. The city sits on a coastal plain and between the city center and the coast, runs an expressway atop an embankment. The coastal side was a scene of devastation, cars upside down in fields, uprooted trees sticking out of the upper stories of houses battered by a wall of water.
Structural damage was still being repaired at the Eagles’ ballpark when they played their first home game there after four “home” games in western Japan at the Hanshin Tigers’ home park, Koshien Stadium, outside Osaka.
Just like many people came expecting something magical from Tanaka on Saturday, people packed into Sendai’s park to see them beat the Orix Buffaloes, which they did. Park Chan Ho started for Orix and afterwards expressed his distaste for the scenario in which the Buffaloes were expected to lose.
The Buffaloes played hard, of course, but few could be unhappy that the Eagles won behind their ace, Tanaka. Ten years, later, and Tanaka has said that one reason he returned was the timing of being able to pitch in Sendai 10 years after the earthquake. Emotions are no longer as high as they were then, and like the Fighters on Saturday, I expect the Seibu Lions will see next Saturday’s game against Tanaka not as some role in a melodrama but rather as a chance to raise their game when everyone is watching. If every team sees Tanaka not as a threat but an opportunity to test themselves and get better, we’re in for a hell of a season.
At Koshien Stadium, Hanshin Tigers righty Shintaro Fujinami (2-0) gave the Yakult Swallows a blast from the past, homering at spacious Koshien Stadium for the first time since he was a high schooler playing there in Japan’s prestigious national invitational and national championships.
The two-run blast, the third of Fujinami’s career, sealed a battle between youth and age, velocity and finesse that could easily have gone to 41-year-old lefty Masanori Ishikawa (0-1) in his season debut.
Ishikawa walked and beat out an infield single and owned rookie Teruaki Sato, needing six pitches to strike the young slugger out twice.
Fujinami allowed three hits and three walks while hitting two batters, but was yanked with two on and two outs in the sixth after plunking Yasutaka Shiomi. A quartet of relievers finished what Fujinami started with Robert Suarez earning his fourth save.
Giants 7, BayStars 0
At Yokohama Stadium, Yomiuri ace Tomoyuki Sugano (1-1) located his fastball well as he manhandled the DeNA BayStars from the mound and contributed to the offense by singling and scoring a sixth-inning insurance run.
Lefty Yuya Sakamoto, DeNA’s second pick in 2019, allowed three runs over five innings in his season debut. Sakamoto, who went 4-1 with a 5.67 ERA last season in 10 starts, threw some good pitches, but his command was inconsistent and the Giants put good swings on pitches in the zone.
The Giants’ top two hitters, Seiya Matsubara and Hayato Sakamoto, playing in an NPB record 1,778th game at shortstop, set the table with no-out singles and Kazuma Okamoto broke the ice with a two-run double. Sakamoto homered to lead off the fifth, although the BayStars’ Sakamoto ended the inning without further damage and the bases jammed with Giants.
Sugano reached on a one-out infield single in the sixth and scored on former BayStar Takayuki Kajitani’s two-run double, a flare that dropped and rolled away from the DeNA fielders.
Carp 7, Dragons 3
At Nagoya’s Vantelin Dome, Ryosuke Kikuchi ended Hiroshima’s scoreless streak at 31 innings and one pitch, hitting the second delivery from Chunichi lefty Taiki Matsuba (0-2) out for a leadoff home run.
Atsushi Endo, making his season debut for the Carp after some weak results in the Western League (15 runs in 1-2/3 innings), made a wild pickoff throw with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the first and the Carp were back to Square 1.
Seiya Suzuki’s fourth home run, a three-run shot, put Hiroshima back on top but the Dragons answered with two in the fourth, when manager Shinji Sasaoka ran out of patience with his starter. With a two-run lead in the fifth, 22-year-old rookie lefty Daisuke Moriura came out of the pen with the bases loaded to retire 43-year-old pinch-hitter to end the Dragons’ last threat.
OK, Moriura took a smash off his body that bounced to the catcher who threw Fukudome out, but it looks good in the box score.
Lions 2, Hawks 1
At MetLife Dome, Tomoya Mori, the Seibu Lions’ 2019 PL MVP reached base four times and decided a pitchers’ duel with a sixth-inning home run in a battle between Opening Day starters, hammering a 2-1 fastball down the pipe from Shuta Ishikawa (1-2) out to right for his third home run.
Kona Takahashi (3-0) was coming off a poor start against Lotte last week when he gave up four runs on five walks over six innings. He retired the first two batters he faced before Yurisbel Gracial took him deep for his second home run.
Rookie Lions leadoff man Gakuto Wakabayashi tied it in the home half, with some help from Gracial. Thinking Wakabayashi’s deep fly was going out, the Hawks’ left fielder stopped short of the wall only for the ball to strike off the padding and roll away from him. The Lions bunted the rookie to third from where he scored on a wild pitch.
Still, that didn’t stop Ishikawa from getting some blame for it, that allowing the first run demonstrated a lack of sufficient will power on his part.
Kaima Taira, the 2020 PL rookie of the year worked around a pinch-hit leadoff single in the eighth before Tatsushi Masuda nailed down his sixth save with a game-ending double play.
Eagles 4, Fighters 1
At Tokyo Dome, a week after going full contact mode with one K over eight innings in his previous start, Rakuten Eagles right-hander Hideaki Wakui’s strikeout train resumed normal service with 10 strikeouts over seven innings. Drew VerHagen, who went 8-6 with a 3.22 ERA in his 2020 debut season, had a kind of cold opening, making a three-inning start in his season debut after no spring training and no tune-ups with the farm team.
VerHagen allowed a run over three innings, as the Fighters temporarily jumped back into the short starter routine that was their M.O. in 2019. Ryusei Kawano, who has been really ineffective in his starts this season, was, however, in his element. The second-year side-arm lefty struck out four of the nine batters he faced over three perfect innings.
The Eagles tied the game 1-1 in the third on back-to-back two-out doubles by Hiroto Kobukata and Hiroaki Shimauchi. In keeping with the Fighters’ flash back night at their former home park, Mizuki Hori (1-1), Nippon Ham’s ace opener from 2019, made an appearance, but the seventh inning was not as kind to him as first innings used to be. He surrendered back-to-back leadoff doubles to Daichi Suzuki and rookie Fumiya Kurokawa, who untied the score for good.
Kobukata tripled and scored in the eighth on a Shimauchi sac fly, and Suzuki led off the ninth with a single and scored his second run to make it 4-1. Lefty closer Yuki Matsui closed the door with two on in the bottom of the ninth to earn his fourth save.
Buffaloes 3, Marines 3
At Osaka’s Kyocera Dome, the Orix Buffaloes wasted an outstanding start from Taisuke Yamaoka, who struck out nine over seven scoreless innings, when rookie reliever Taisei Urushihara surrendered a three-run eighth-inning home run to Hisanori Yasuda.
The home run took Kota Futaki, the Marines’ Opening Day starter off the hook after he allowed three runs, one earned, over seven innings. The unearned runs came in the seventh after Yasuda fumbled a grounder at third to open the inning.
Yasuhiro Tanaka pitched out of trouble in the bottom of the eighth, while the Buffaloes’ Tyler Higgins and Lotte closer Naoya Masuda shut the doors to ensure a share of the points – or rather a non-event, since ties count for nothing.