OK, so the Swallows and Dragons were not on the ballot because of the rain, but if they’re going to play, and I can’t sit in the cramped Jingu pressbox, that’s where we’ll start.
Not on the agenda was the Seibu Lions home game against the Nippon Ham Fighters, where Zach Neal issued three walks in a game for just the second time in Japan but still threw six shutout innings.
His hero interview is HERE.
Top of 1st
Swallows starter Masanori Ishikawa has had a couple of monster Opening Days, but after getting two easy outs in the first, the Dragons two big foreign hitters put the visitors on top. (Can we call a foul catch by Munetaka Murakami an easy out? He’s playing at third base for goodness sakes) Beautiful hitting by Zoilo Almonte, who missed most of last season, followed by a drive into the stands by Dayan Viciedo.
Bottom of 1st
Tomotaka Sakaguchi, one of the guys who has famously had a productive career after escaping Orix — I believe he threatened to dig a tunnel out of Kyocera Dome, beats out an infield single. Tetsuto Yamada then puts an easy swing on a fastball from Yudai Ono and lofts it over the wall in left center. The only player in NPB history to hit .300 with 30 homers and 30 steals more than once will have a tough job doing for the 4th time considering there’s only 120 games to work with, but gets a nice start.
Norichika Aoki follows with a double to left that Almonte is slow to get to and scores on a single by Murakami. The Swallows load the bases but Ono gets out of jai.
Top of 2nd
Nine pitches and Ishikawa is done in the 2nd, leaving the pitcher Ono to lead off the Dragons’ third.
Bottom of 2nd
Nice diving stop from second baseman Toshiki Abe gives Ono a 1-2-3 second. This guy’s career was going NOWHERE until Tsuyoshi Yoda took over as Dragons manager last year and took this guy who’d basically done nothing on the first team and the farm. He makes contact and he can play defense. Last year, the balls he hit found lots of holes and his numbers made him look like an all-star.
Top of 3rd
Singles by leadoff man Yohei Oshima and a little ground single again to the right side from Zoilo Almonte, who has apparently been picking up tips from Chunichi’s masters of slap-hitting zen, give Chunichi an opportunity as the rain picks up. Ishikawa, however, escapes trouble as Aoki gloves the final out after circumnavigating left field as only he can do.
Bottom of 3rd
The ground crew was out doing damage control between innings, as nobody wants to give away a game this year when makeups may be impossible.
I swear Yakult’s Takahiro Shiomi looks so much like Aoki as a hitter, that I have to do a double take to see if Aoki hasn’t started switch-hitting.
Top of 4th
After Ono cruised through the bottom of the third, allowing only an opposite-field flair, it’s Ishikawa’s turn. At 1.67 meters, Ishikawa is one of the shortest pitchers in NPB. The lefty came up just short of turning two hits into outs as Shuhei Takahashi bounces one over the mound and up the middle for a leadoff single.
Abe lines a high 2-0 fastball away down the right field line for a double, and Yota Kyoda ties it with a foul sac fly to Aoki. Alcides Escobar grabs a ground ball on the next play, fires behind Abe at second in plenty of time, but Yamada waits for the runner to slide into his tag and he fails to comply. First video request for me this season comes up empty for new Swallows skipper Shingo Takatsu.
Bottom of 4th
Longtime Eagle captain Motohiro Shima doubles off the top of the wall, and Ishikawa bunts him to third, giving Yakult a chance to end this after 4-1/2 innings. Sakaguchi smokes a pitch low out of the zone and rips it up the middle for RBI single and Yakult is up 4-3 with one out and and a man on.
Aoki goes deep off a lefty and its 6-3 Swallows. That was his 111th career home run in Japan and like a lot of the balls we saw going out in practice games, it didn’t look he had much energy on that swing. It was his 27th off a lefty but only his first off Ono.
Top of 5th
It’s really raining and looks like they shouldn’t be playing but Ishikawa gets into a two-out jam on a Viciedo single and a Takahashi double. But Murakami, probably the worst fielding first baseman in Japan last year, stabs a ball at third and throws Abe out to end the inning. Ishikawa, who has never completed his first start of the season, pumps his fist but the umps play on so he won’t go the distance this time either.
Bottom of 5th
We’re into the bullpen now, with Ono gone after 83 pitches. Right-hander Katsuki Matayoshi allows a two-out single to Escobar, but nothing else.
Top of 6th
And who cares about the rain?
After facing 24 batters and throwing 84 pitches, Ishikawa is gone in favor of lefty Yuki Hasegawa, who promptly gives up a leadoff double to Kyoda and a single by catcher Takuma Kato. Nobumasa Fukuda, the Dragons’ top pinch-hitter bats for Matayoshi and pops up. I have no idea why it is, but NPB hitters don’t suffer the same pinch-hitting penalty that Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin documented regarding major leaguers in “The Book.”
Yohei Oshima grounds into a force out as Kyoda scores from third, Swallows 6 Dragons 4. Right-hander Noboru Shimizu in to face Ryosuke Hirata, who pops up to the catcher, Shima and it’s time for more joy in mudville as the umps say play on.
Bottom of 6th
The hardest throwing pitcher we’ve seen so far tonight is on, Chunichi right-hander Hiroshi Suzuki. Good movement on his cutter and his four-seamer. Still, he surrenders a leadoff pinch-hit single to Takeshi Miyamoto. Takahashi falls behind 3-0 to Sakaguchi then throws three straight near the bottom of the strike zone where with some charity from home plate ump Masaharu Kasahara, gets Sakaguchi to ground out.
It may be the middle of June but Takahashi’s location looks like he hasn’t pitched in a while.. He walks Yamada and it’s two on and one out for Aoki, who gets ahead before striking out on a low fastball.
Murakami, however, singles in Miyamoto and its a 7-4 Swallows.
Top of 7th
Elsewhere, the first appearance by Orix’s bullpen proves disastrous, as 12 Rakuten batters put up eight runs in the eighth in Osaka to break up a 1-1 game.
At Jingu, 21-year-old righty Yugo Umeno is on for Yakult. He had a very respectable 2019 in middle relief, pitching in 68 games last season. But ANOTHER good at-bat by Almonte results in a single and a four-pitch walk to Viciedo puts the tying run at the plate with no outs.
A beautiful swing from Shuhei Takahashi plants a double into the gap in right and only Jingu’s infield mud hazard prevents Viciedo from scoring. He does come home, when Abe puts the ball in play and grounds into the first out.
A nice swing by Yota Kyoda on a decent low fastball singles home the tying run and its 7-up. That’s followed by a straight one that substitute catcher Takuya Kinoshita lines to right and Umeno is done.
Bottom of 7th
Right-hander Daisuke Sobue allowed Alcides Escobar’s second single of the game but nothing else in a scoreless inning. Alas for a pitcher whose name sounds like “subway,” the Dragons reliever comes nearly straight over the top when he should be serving up submarine deliveries.
Top of 8th
Scottt McGough, who had a strong 2019 debut season with the Swallows, strikes out two in a scoreless eighth.
Bottom of 8th
Cuban right-hander Raidel Martinez got Yamada to hit into a double play and erase Sakaguchi after the leadoff man open with a single in a scoreless inning against the top of the Swallows lineup.
Top of 9th
Taishi Ishiyama delivers Yakult’s second 1-2-3 inning of the game..
Bottom of 9th
… only for Hiroto Fuku to do the same in the home half and send this puppy into extra inning, period. NPB games, which had gone to 12 innings before being called and declared ties, will only go 10 this year due to the coronavirus.
Top of 10th
Ryuta Konno, who in six pro seasons with the Rakuten Eagles has pitched a total of 23-2/3 innings, gets the ball for the Swallows in the 10th. A walk, an error on Konno and a single load the bases with no outs and a game that was once in hand in peril.
A Naomichi Donoue sacrifice fly puts the Dragons in front for the first time since the first inning, and there’s still time for more.
Another former Eagle, catcher Motohiro Shima due to lead off the Swallows’ 10th from the No. 8 spot.
Dayan Viciedo flies out but a wild pitch erases any force play as the Dragons look to add on here. Abe makes contact, again, grounding between second and third, and it’s 9-7 Dragons.
Bottom of 10th
Two-out single by rookie Yudai Koga against veteran lefty Toshiya Okada brings Yamada up with a chance to tie it. He survives a possible third strike on a checked swing before beating out an infield single to short.
Okada gets two strikes against Taishi Hirooka but can’t get him to chase two sliders he buried. The lefty hangs the next one and Hirooka lines it into left to load the bases.
Munetaka Murakami, who blasted 36 home runs last year as a 19-year-old rookie is up with a chance to walk it off. But two swinging strikes, and Okada pumps his fist as the Dragons get away with the win.