NPB news: Sept. 29, 2023

On Friday, the DeNA Deniers went in hunt of the tie or win that will secure their spot in the Central League’s postseason, while SoftBank had an opportunity to open up a one-game gap ahead of third-place Rakuten, and Hiroshima looked to solidify its hold on second place in a game against Chunichi.

We also have an outside shot of having a batting Triple Crown winner.

Off the field, there’s a lot going on. The Nippon Ham Fighters have agreed to contract terms with a teenage pitching phenom, two teams have expressed interest in acquiring Hotaka Yamakawa following allegations of sexual assault — and this should surprise no one, while NPB’s owners are on the verge of anointing two new minor league teams.

As usual, I’ll get to those details after a recap of today’s games.

Friday’s games

Deniers 6, Tigers 3: At Yokohama Stadium, DeNA fell behind, and Hanshin had opportunities to bury their hosts and prevent them clinching a playoff berth, but could not do it. The win meant Yomiuri would finish fourth in consecutive years for only the second time in franchise history, sparking an apology from the Giants’ owner and a non-answer about manager Tatsunori Hara.

A pair of two-out first-inning walks from Koyo Aoyagi (8-6) set up Toshiro Miyazaki‘s RBI single for DeNA. Yusuke Oyama’s 18th home run, his third in three games, tied it 1-1 leading off Hanshin’s second. Teruaki Sato followed with a double and scored on Seiya Kinami sac fly. Sato repeated the feat leading off the fourth with a double before scoring on a Seishiro Sakamoto sac fly — when Sakamoto was robbed of a double by left fielder Tatsuo Ebina — to make it 3-1.

Aoyagi’s third two-walk inning allowed DeNA to tie it and take the lead in the fourth, with Taiki Sekine singling in one and Keita Sano‘s sac fly leveling the scores. Sekine then scored the go-ahead run on a Miyazaki double.

Three Tigers no-out singles loaded the bases in the fifth but DeNA matched that with a trio of pitchers as Ishida and two relievers each recorded a strikeout with Shota Morishita, Oyama and Sato going down in order.

The DeNA win consigned Yomiuri to back-to-back fourth-place finishes for the second time in franchise history. It forced an apology out of the team and makes us wonder whether Yomiuri can find a way to rid itself of manager Tatsunori Hara.

Hawks 1, Lions 0: At Fukuoka Dome, Kensuke Kondo accounted for the scoring in the sixth with his 25th home run, pulling him even in the PL home run lead with Rakuten’s Hideto Asamura, Nippon Ham’s Chusei Mannami, and Lotte’s Gregory Polanco.

Seibu’s Tatsuya Imai (10-5) and SoftBank’s Kohei Arihara (10-4) each allowed two hits. Imai loaded the bases with one out in the first on two walks and a hit batsman before exiting after seven innings.

Arihara surrendered just one David MacKinnon leadoff double, a Kento Watanabe pinch-hit single and one walk while striking out nine over eight innings.

Maybe I’m late on this, but if Kondo can go 11-for-24 in the Hawks’ remaining six games, while holding on to his home run and RBI lead, the Pacific League will have its first Triple Crown winner since Nobuhiko Matsunaka did it with the Daiei Hawks in 2004.

Dragons 4, Carp 1: At New Hiroshima Citizens Stadium, Chunichi rookie Rea Nakachi (2-5) had as much trouble finding the strike zone as Hiroshima’s batters had hitting his pitches. Carp starter Masato Morishita (9-6) made the Dragons earn their way on base, and that they did, getting seven hits and three runs off him in five innings. Nakachi walked five in 5-1/3 innings while allowing just one hit.

Sun headed for Hokkaido

The Nippon Ham Fighters have agreed to contract terms with 18-year-old amateur right-hander Sun Yi-lei from Taiwan. The Fighters reportedly surpassed an offer from an MLB team with a $800,000 signing bonus with the added kicker that the MLB minimum minor league contract he would be required to sign would be worth less than the NPB minimum and would lack any of the bells and whistles Japanese teams are able to offer in supplemental deals.

“Since early spring this year, we’ve taken notice of Sun’s rapid progress as a pitcher. His poise on the mound made it hard to believe he’d primarily been a position player prior to this season,” Fighters GM Atsunori Inaba said in a statement released by the team.

“More than just the good fastball he showed against Japan in the (recent) Under-18 World Cup, but his courage and determination not to give in to hitters, made me think he is able to get a lot better going forward. He is a Taiwan treasure, and I hope he will use his time well and eventually become a big pitcher on a global scale.”

DeNA, Chunichi express interest in Yamakawa

Slugging Seibu Lions first baseman Hotaka Yamakawa is currently under indefinite suspension after he was accused of raping an acquaintance last winter although prosecutors have decided not to charge him, but two teams, the DeNA Deniers and Chunichi Dragons, have reportedly looked into the possibility of trading for him, the Chunichi being the far more interested.

Lions general manager Hisanobu Watanabe said his team is open to the possibility of a deal for the 31-year-old three-time PL home run champ.

The Dragons have a long history of signing players other teams wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. When they were convinced reliever Hiroaki Nakayama had rehabilitated himself three years after being arrested for child molesting and being cut by the Taiyo Whales, they signed him and he pitched eight seasons in Nagoya, and was named to the CL All-Star team in 1996, when he saved 14 games.

In more recent years, the Dragons were the only team to offer two players who quit their former teams as free agents in contract disputes, Norihiro Nakamura and Daisuke Matsuzaka, and signed both of them. While Matsuzaka was nearly at the end of his string, Nakamura won two Golden Gloves at third base in Nagoya, was the MVP of the 2007 Japan Series and played eight seasons after the Orix Buffaloes cast him off.

DeNA, meanwhile, has shown through its signing of Trevor Bauer, that it couldn’t care less about Yamakawa beyond whether or not he produce offensively. If Yamakawa wants to pretend nothing happened, then Yokohama will be the place for him.

Shizuoka, Niigata poised for minor teams

On Friday, NPB’s owners committee approved the qualifications of two teams aspiring to join NPB as members of its second-tier leagues, the Eastern and Western leagues. Shizuoka’s Hayate 223 – pronounced “Hayate Fujisan” – and Albirex Niigata of Eastern Japan’s independent B.C. Challenge League, cleared the necessary requirements for playing talent and home parks.

NPB secretary general Atsushi Ihara, Rob Manfred’s ball-manipulation shenanigans’ role model, said there was no way either of these teams would end up playing in the Central or Pacific leagues.

“This has absolutely nothing to do with major league expansion,” Ihara said.

If NPB does it right, the Shizuoka club will join the WL, a five-team circuit since 2005, while the Niigata club would make the EL an eight-team league. But not having them actually join the 12 teams that currently run NPB in any fashion creates huge numbers of questions. Will their players be on NPB contracts? Can they be traded with NPB teams?

A sensible approach would be to give the two teams the same access to amateur talent that the 12 current NPB teams have, but the chances of that are the same that I’ll be named the next commissioner. Do that, and the players they develop could be held or traded or sold to other teams.

Still, it will be interesting to see what teams who represent communities with local support can do in leagues where their competition doesn’t represent anyone but the parent company of their major league club. But the one thing we can bet on is that NPB’s owners will never intentionally do nothing that would ever encourage change within the existing structure.

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