NPB news: April 4, 2024

Thursday brought us five games, with the Eagles and Fighters taking the day off, with three come-from-behind wins, and an important win for a big-name pitcher, while the curse of Japan’s obsession with one-run tactics helps trigger a late-inning implosion. All in a day’s baseball.

Before I get to the games, reader and all-around gracious gentleman David Laurila of Fan Graphs asked about Japan’s pension for pulling the outfield in so much, and I’ll share my answer after the game recaps.

Thursday’s games

Buffaloes 2, Lions 1: At Seibu Half Dome, Kohei Azuma (1-0) allowed a run on three hits over seven innings as Orix avoided being swept by Seibu and the right-hander improved to 8-0 in his career.

Brazilian Bo Takahashi (0-1) allowed two runs, one earned, on two walks and three hits. Yuichi Adachi created a 1-0 lead in the third. He drew a leadoff walk, took second on a passed ball, was sacrificed to third and scored on Kenya Wakatsuki‘s sacrifice fly. Masahiro Nishino doubled and scored on a single by DH and former Lion Tomoya Mori.

Shuta Tonosaki homered in the seventh before Andres Machado and Yoshihisa Hirano each put two runners on en route to a scoreless inning. Hirano’s 244th career save in Japan moved him out of a tie for fourth with former Tigers closer Kyuji Fujikawa. He is now eight shy of No. 3, Hall of Famer Kazuhiro Sasaki.

Giants 2, Dragons 0: At Nagoya Dome, Tomoyuki Sugano‘s first start since his career worst 2023 season was not vintage, but it was effective. The right-hander, whose career has stuttered a bit since winning the Sawamura Award in 2017 and 2018, was coming off a 4-8 2023 season in which he failed to throw 80 innings.

Against the Dragons, Sugano (1-0) allowed four singles and a first-inning leadoff walk while striking out three over seven innings. He also drew a third-inning leadoff walk that sparked a two-run outburst against Dragons right-hander Kodai Umetsu (0-1) that included Kazuma Okamoto plating rookie leadoff man Masaya Hagio with a two-out single.

The bullpen took over from the eighth with Kota Nakagawa working a 1-2-3 inning before Taisei Ota, coming off an injury-hit 2023 and a difficult spring, striking out the side for his first save.

BayStars 3, Tigers 2: At Kyocera UFO Dome, DeNA overcame a two-run deficit against Yuki Nishi (0-1). The Tigers put two on the board against submariner Hayate Nakagawa in the fourth. Ryutaro Umeno singled in Ukyo Maekawa with one out, and Teruaki Sato scored on a ground out.

The BayStars got three runs against Nishi in the sixth. Shugo Maki doubled and scored on a Taiki Sekine double. With one out and the bases loaded, Taishi Kusumoto singled in Toshiro Miyazaki and Sekine against lefty Takuma Kirishiki.

Yasuaki Yamasaki recorded his second save.

Hawks 8, Marines 1: At Fukuoka Dome, Lotte’s Yudai Fujioka hit a first-inning homer off right-hander Ryosuke Otsu (1-0), and the game went downhill from there as the Hawks answered back with a six-run first off Manabu Mima (0-1).

Hotaka Yamakawa doubled in Kenta Imamiya and Yuki Yanagita and then scored on Kensuke Kondo’s homer. Doubles by Ryoya Kurihara and catcher Takashi Umeno made it 5-0 before leadoff man Ukyo Shuto capped the rally with an RBI single.

Ukyo Shuto singled, took third on an error and scored on a fourth-inning ground out. New Lotte import James Dykstra, a guest on this week’s podcast, made his Japan debut in the fifth, surrendered a solo homer, Imamiya’s second of the year, but no more runs despite three two-out walks in the sixth.

Otsu allowed eight hits but no walks while striking out five over six innings to earn the win.

Carp 6, Swallows 3: At New Hiroshima Citizens Stadium, Swallows manager Shingo Takatsu helped get Hiroshima back in the game in a two-run seventh, and setup man Noboru Shimizu blew up the game, surrendering three runs in a four-run eighth.

Domingo Santana broke the ice with a one-out, bases-loaded RBI single off Daichi Osera that scored Yasutaka Shiomi. Jose Osuna scored when shortstop Kaito Kozono looked at a double play instead of the ball and fumbled a grounder. Hideki Nagaoka singled home Munetaka Murakami off new pitcher Atsuya Horie.

The Carp got two runs when Takatsu’s beloved shallow-outfield tactic backfired. A one-out single and an error on Nagaoka at short put runners on second and third. With the outfield in, Yasutaka Shiomi came in to catch a ball that might have been tough had he been playing at normal depth. However, Tsubasa Aikawa’s routine two-out fly to right went for a double and scored Shota Dobayashi and Takashi Uemoto instead of becoming the third out.

Scoring baseball style points

Historically, Japanese baseball has emphasized techniques and tactics meant to manufacture or prevent single runs from scoring. It is so pervasive, that a manager will never be criticized for sacrificing, even with one out when trailing by two runs, or bringing in the infield in the first inning of a scoreless game to prevent a runner on third from scoring on a groundball.

This doctrine became etched in concrete, partly as a backlash by small-ball purists after a lively ball caused Pacific League home run rates to soar starting in 1979 and 1980. Even as home runs increased in the 1980s, teams sacrificed into bunt shifts because they knew that if the runner reached second, the opposing outfield would come in and open the door for big innings.

And because no manager can be criticized for it, regardless how often it blows up in his face, there are some who will bring in the outfield to prevent the runner on second—even one that doesn’t represent the tying run–from scoring on a one-out ground single.

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