NPB news: Oct. 29, 2023

Apologize for being late. The day job has kept me up writing about the Japan Series until late and without a monitor to see the pitches or swings, it’s a little hard to report as I usually might. On the other hand, I get to talk to players a little before games, something most teams have worked this year to curtail since they could no longer use COVID as an excuse to restrict media access.


Because of that access, I was able to have a few minutes with Yoshinobu Yamamoto after he practiced on Friday, and with Leandro Cedeno, Yuma Mune and Hanshin pitcher Jeremy Beasley.

Mune, who I need to start calling “DJ” because he’s the one who pulls the team boom box onto the field for practice. The first tune that came out was a reggaeton number he said he picked, although I didn’t ask whether he was in charge of the whole playlist. Another possible nickname might be “glove whisperer.” After he practiced, the Golden Glove third baseman was inspecting two different gloves, weighing each in his hands, manipulating them in various ways, putting them side by side on the dugout floor and prostrating himself to get a careful look at each in turn.

“They’re the same. They both have a lot of different lettering on them, and I wanted to see how they looked,” he said.

A day before he got lit up in Game 1, Yamamoto talked about his season and getting shelled in his playoff debut this year.

“I was able to pitch the whole season, but the best thing this year is that we won the pennant and as a player, knowing you contributed to that is really a good thing,” he said before going on to talk about allowing five runs in seven innings but getting the win against Lotte in their playoff opener, when he failed to snare a couple of sharp comebackers that led to a three-run first inning.

“I think I might have caught those in ordinary circumstances,” he said. “In that game, I was a little too tight throwing some pitches, and didn’t quite have enough late life on them. If they had that little extra, they would have missed barrels and be easier to catch. My velocity was fine, but from the point of view of the batters that day, my pitches were easier to see and easier to hit right at the start of the game.  That’s why the balls were coming off bats just a little faster, and were able to find some holes, too. I’ve reflected on that and have made some adjustment so I think I’m in a better place now.”

On Saturday, it was a different issue. In his first four career postseason starts, in 2021 and 2022, he was 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA, striking out 31 batters in 32 innings while allowing 20 hits, three walks and a hit batsman. In last year’s Japan Series opener, Yamamoto allowed four runs in four innings and was hurt and out of the series before he could finish pitching to the first batter.

In his past three postseason games, he’s become Clayton Kershaw, with a 1-2 record and an 8.64 ERA, although he has struck out 20 batters in 16-2/3 innings.

Saturday’s Game 1

Tigers 8, Buffaloes 0: At Kyocera UFO Dome, both pitchers cruised early facing the minimum through three innings, but Hanshin rookie Shoki Murakami kept it up through seven, while Yamamoto, who couldn’t make his best pitch, his curve, work, was chased in the sixth, tagging him for seven runs on 10 hits in 5-2/3 innings.

The Tigers broke through with their second scoring opportunity of the game, sparked by a Teruaki Sato single and a stolen base. Even with Hanshin giving an out away with a one-out sacrifice attempt with the first run coming on a one-out flare single by the Tigers’ underpowered DH, utility infielder Ryo Watanabe. Four runs scored thanks to a two-out Koji Chikamoto triple and a Takumi Nakano single.

Nakano reached base four times, and also drove in two runs, while Watanabe also scored twice.

Buffaloes manager Satoshi Nakajima, a former catcher, credited Murakami with exploiting umpire Kota Yamaguchi’s low strike zone.

“You can’t complain about it, that will only make them (the umpires) mad at you,” Nakajima said. “Their pitcher was good at getting lots of borderline called strikes low in the zone. But that’s baseball.”

The Buffaloes hit the hardest balls of the game, a Tomoya Mori lineout to open the second, and a couple of scorching foul drives one with home run distance off the bat of Marwin Gonzales with two on and one out in the bottom of the fifth and Orix trailing 4-0. Gonzalez lost that battle, fouling off five straight two-strike pitches before flying out on the 10th pitch from the CL ERA leader.

“I lost my chance,” Gonzalez said Sunday. “He wasn’t making that many mistakes, he threw a really good game. He threw me a couple of mistakes and it was frustrating because I couldn’t keep them fair. I was putting good swings on it. I was just a little too early. That could have changed the game. It would have been 4-3 and a totally different game.”

“It was a good and frustrating at-bat at the same time. That was a great moment. I was enjoying it and the way the fans were enjoying every single pitch, I could hear the noise with every single pitch, I was fouling off, I was fouling off. You could hear every single thing.”

Threat level

On May 8, 2023, the Japanese government downgraded the coronavirus to a minor nuisance, while 10 NPB teams, the major exceptions being the Hiroshima Carp and Seibu Lions, have upgraded their threat level from the media to the category of major nuisance, taking steps to make it more difficult to have easy access to players.

On Friday’s practice day, reporters were given access to players as they entered the Osaka UFO Dome parking lot, while Orix allowed players to talk to reporters next to the dugout. The Tigers, who have for years frowned on reporters talking to players on the field in full view of the stands, said “no talking on the field.” So NPB has banned reporters from the field at Games 3, 4 and 5 at Koshien Stadium, while allowing the media to talk to players in the areas behind the dugouts.

On game days in Osaka, the Tigers can’t prohibit reporters from talking to players next to the dugout, so the games here have been a rare opportunity to catch up with players I haven’t had a chance to talk with, like Takumu Nakano, who turned pro during the pandemic.

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