Yoshihisa Hirano fielded questions from the media on Wednesday, following his return to the Pacific League’s Orix Buffaloes for the first time in four years. The 36-year-old right-hander signed a one-year deal reportedly worth 150 million yen ($1.43 million) with additional incentives.
Here are some excerpts from the presser provided by Sankei Sports:
Hirano: “I’m so looking forward to being able to play in Japan again. I’m overjoyed. I desire to my very best for Orix.
—Is your buzz cut an expression of your determination?
Hirano: “(Laughs) I guess so. If you want to say that it’s fine by me.”
Hirano:“When last season ended, I thought, ‘Of course I want to stay in America,’ but given the state of the world now, the desire to play in Japan began to take shape.”
Hirano:“In the difficult circumstances posed by the coronavirus, I’m appreciative of the warm welcome, and the only way to repay that is by winning a championship.”
—about your one-year contract…
Hirano: “Right now I’m not thinking about going back over there. My thinking is to approach each year as its own challenge. Physically, I’m in the same condition I always am at this stage.”
—You are coming back just like Masahiro Tanaka…
Hirano: “Hey, this is me we’re talking about. I don’t think I’m quite comparable yet to young Mr. Tanaka.”
Kodai Senga sidelined
SoftBank Hawks ace Kodai Senga, who either led or tied for the Pacific League lead in wins, strikeouts and ERA last year, will join the team’s rehab group due to calf pain in both legs, manager Kimiyasu Kudo said Wednesday according to Sponichi Annex.
There is plenty of time for him to be fit in time for the Hawks’ March 26 season opener against the Lotte Marines, but Kudo said the move was a cautionary step.
“He’s not running now, and we aren’t going to push it,” Kudo said. “We want him to return 100 percent fit and want him to go at his speed without rushing. We don’t have a plan right now, but that’s the situation.”
Fighters see 2-way possibilities for Ito
He’s not Shohei Ohtani, but the Hiromi Ito, the Nippon Ham Fighters’ top pick in last autumn’s draft, could be their next candidate to contribute on both sides of the ball, the Nikkan Sports reported Wednesday.
“From the very start, we talked about maybe playing two-ways,” Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama said of the pitcher, a hard-throwing right-hander who has been flashing his foot speed in camp. “It doesn’t matter whether he does or doesn’t, but it was just one of the things I was thinking of.”
“Perhaps he could aim to lead the league in stolen bases as a pinch-runner before taking the mound as a closer. I need to give it some thought.”
On Saturday, the SoftBank Hawks held their annual “reject Kodai Senga’s plead to be posted” contract negotiation. The 26-year-old is on track to be a domestic free agent a year from now and eligible to move overseas on his own power after the 2022 season. Since GM Sugihiko Mikasa indicated a multiyear deal was ready for Senga, it seems he turned that down with the hope the club might just change its mind a year from now and post him after four years of head-shaking.
The Hawks have, according to Call to the Pen, signed Cuban pitcher Andy Rodriguez. The Hawks non-tendered pitchers Rick van den Hurk and Matt Moore, but would love to have Moore back for a second season in Fukuoka.
Tigers bulk up
The Hanshin Tigers have reached deals to import two of KBO’s outstanding imports last season, Mel Rojas Jr, and pitcher Raul Alcantara, signed lefty Chen Wei-yin, who finished the 2020 season with the Lotte Marines, and re-signed closer Robert Suarez.
Alcantara won the 2020 Choi Dong Won Award as KBO’s outstanding pitcher, while Rojas is the second straight KBO RBI leader to join the Tigers following their 2019 acquisition of Jerry Sands. Rojas, the 2020 MVP also led the league in home runs and finished third in batting average.
The Marines have come to terms with infielder Adeiny Hechevarria, the Miami Marlins’ everyday shortstop from 2013 to 2016. Hechevarria has been a utility infielder since, although he did hit a career-high nine home runs last year.
Marines manager Tadahito Iguchi said he expects Hechevarria could hit 20 homers a season in Japan. I thought that was a bit of stretch but two of the 140 players who hit 20-plus HRs in their first NPB season came here without ever hitting more than nine in a year, so it’s not quite as silly as it sounds.
The Marines also brought back Frank Herrmann, whom they non-tendered, for a second season in Chiba, while the Lions have done the same with first-year reliever Reed Garrett. The Orix Buffaloes have also agreed to bring back closer Brandon Dickson for his ninth season.
When I saw Stefen Romero cut after an outstanding first season with the Rakuten Eagles, I wondered if an unusually large number of players were non-tendered this year, but that wasn’t appear the case. The 12 teams cut 132 players on Dec. 2, one shy of the 133 cut in 2016 and 2019.
From 2003 to 2010 the median was 94. Since 2011, the new median is 127.5, with the watershed year being 2011.
This should come as no surprise to anyone. That year, both leagues were thrown into chaos between the introduction of a deader uniform ball, the merging of umpires from both leagues for the first time, and low-lighting for several months in the wake of the nuclear disasters following the March 11 killer earthquake and tsunami. Offense plummeted, many players’ numbers dipped precipitously, and a lot of them got the chop.
Since then 120 to 130 has been the norm, and this year, which at first glance appeared to be a response to more available talent from the frozen free-agent market in the States, is not that unusual.
Free agent market
Speaking of free agents, one team’s international director said he did not feel more veteran major leaguers were looking to a Japan contract this year to escape the majors’ current buyers market.
In the domestic market, Yasuhiro Ogawa, the first pitcher in Japan to throw a no-hitter in the same game he first struck out 10 batters, tested the market as a free agent and decided to stay with the Yakult Swallows rather than join the Pacific League’s Nippon Ham Fighters.
Chunichi Dragons lefty Yudai Ono was named the winner of the 2020 Eiji Sawamura Award on Monday in Tokyo. As predicted, the 32-year-old made the five old pitchers’ hearts on the selection committee flutter with his 10 complete games and six shutouts, despite a pedestrian win-loss record of 11-6.
The award goes to the most impressive starting pitcher from Japan’s two leagues, thus it is similar to but not quite analogous to MLB’s Cy Young Award.
““Getting an award like this is something that seemed beyond my grasp both as an amateur and even after I turned pro. It feels like it can’t be happening.“
–Chunichi Dragons pitcher Yudai Ono on winning the Sawamura Award.
Ono led the Central League in strikeouts with 148, one shy of tying for the Japan lead with SoftBank Hawks ace Kodai Senga and Orix Buffaloes ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Ono led both leagues in innings pitched, ERA, complete games and shutouts.
There was a lot of sentiment for Yomiuri Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano because of the committee’s parallel obsession with win totals as the right-hander went 14-2 and set this year’s stupidest Japan record — the most consecutive decisions won from the start of the season by an Opening Day starter.
Several voters were willing to name both Ono and Sugano, but the sentiment toward picking “the best one” prevailed. Other pitchers were considered, but they lacked the sexy win total of Sugano and complete game total of Ono.
The other pitchers named were Hiroshima Carp rookie Masato Morishita and three 11-game winners from the Pacific League, Senga, his Hawks teamamte Shuta Ishikawa, and Rakuten Eagles veteran Hideaki Wakui.
This year’s Sawamura Award selection committee members were: Tsuneo Horiuchi, Manabu Kitabeppu, Choji Murata, Hisashi Yamada and Masaji HIramatsu.
The award has been open to players from both leagues since 1990, when Hideo Nomo became the first PL pitcher to win. Sugano won in 2017 and 2018, but no winner was named in 2019 for the first time since 2000.
Although the PL has dominated competition between the two leagues over the previous 16 years, no PL pitcher has won since 2014. From 2005 to 2014 however, nine of the 10 winners were PL pitchers.
Ryoya Kurihara introduced himself in a big way to the Japan Series on Saturday with a homer, two doubles, and four RBIs in Game 1. And that was just his first three at-bats. Kurihara’s offensive explosion carried SoftBank Hawks ace Kodai Senga to a 5-1 win.
The 24-year-old SoftBank Hawks outfielder, who entered the season with 57 plate appearances, became a regular slammed a two-run homer off Yomiuri Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano in the second, doubled and was thrown out at the plate in the fourth, and belted a two-run double in the sixth.
Senga delivered a prototypical outing. His fastball hummed and often jumped, while his split and slider were unpredictable. The Giants hitters did a good job of fouling off the fastball and laying off his secondary pitches.
Hiroyuki Nakajima and Naoki Nishikawa both hammered splitters that failed to tumble and drove them to the wall in the fifth inning but both balls were caught.
Sugano was also pretty close to his season norms as he tried to stay just out of the strike zone and get people to chase, and did get some weak swings on the corners but also fell behind hitters, and gave up his share of hard-hit balls.
The Giants went to rookie Shosei Togo in the seventh, while Senga stayed in to work the home half as his pitch count crossed the 100-mark.
Hawks leadoff man Ukyo Shuto made it 5-0 in the eighth, by drawing a walk off lefty Yuki Takahashi, stealing second and scoring on an Akira Nakamura single.
The Hawks entered the series with the longest postseason winning streak in NPB history, 12 games dating back to Game 2 of the 2019 PL Climax Series first stage. They also set an NPB record by winning their ninth straight series game, dating back to Game 3 of the 2018 series.
The Giants entered having lost five straight series games, their last win coming against Masahiro Tanaka in Game 6 of the 2013 series, his final start in Japan, although he came in to save Game 7.
Livan Moinelo dazzled the Giants with his fastball and curve, striking out three in the eighth before closer Yuito Mori did his usual thing, loading the bases and allowing a run before closing it out.
The game’s attendance of 16,489 — restricted due to the novel coronavirus pandemic — was the series first under 20,000 since Game 8 of the 1986 affair, when 16,828 attended a Monday afternoon game when the teams finished the first seven games tied 3-3-1.
In the kind of snit Yomiuri is famous for, its TV network cut away the game’s only live broadcast for commercials instead of airing Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo’s postgame interview. This is reminiscent of the Yomiuri Shimbun’s coverage of Game 6 of the 1996 series.
That year, every newspaper in Japan had a front page photo of Ichiro Suzuki and the Orix BlueWave celebrating their Japan Series championship, except Japan’s top financial paper, the Nikkei Shimbun and the Yomiuri, whose team lost.
The Yomiuri Giants and SoftBank Hawks open the Japan Series on Saturday, when the Central League champion Giants host Game 1, not at their home park, Tokyo Dome, but at Osaka’s Kyocera Dome, the home of the Pacific League’s Orix Buffaloes.
The move was necessitated because Tokyo Dome is in use for Toshi Taiko, Japan’s most prestigious corporate league tourney. The event typically takes place at Tokyo Dome from the end of August to early September, but was displaced this year due to the pandemic.
The Giants are therefore taking their act on the road to a park that will be far more familiar to the visitors. This has happened a few times in the past, most recently from 1978 to 1980. In 1978, the Yakult Swallows’ home games were played at Tokyo Dome’s predecessor, Korakuen Stadium.
For the next two autumns, the Hiroshima Carp squared off against the Kintetsu Buffaloes, who played their home games at the Nankai Hawks’ home, Osaka Stadium instead of either of the two parks the Buffaloes used for their regular-season games.
In 1974, the Lotte Orions opted to host their games at Korakuen rather than at their main park, Sendai’s Miyagi Stadium, which in a completely overhauled form is now the home of the Rakuten Eagles.
Game 1 will be the first Japan Series game at Kyocera Dome since the Kintetsu Buffaloes hosted the first two games of the 2001 series there before losing on the road to the Yakult Swallows at Jingu Stadium.
Senga arises from confusion to tie Horiuchi
One thing that sets the Japan Series apart from its cousin the MLB championship series is the almost random way in which things take place in NPB’s flagship event.
Are starting pitchers announced ahead of time? It depends on the managers. If they want to, then the starters are announced, otherwise not. Postgame press conference? They happen when and how the teams want them, and the same for postgame player interviews.
Absolutely the only thing NPB organizes is the pre-series managers meeting and press conference. After that, it’s a free for all. The beat writers know where to go because they’ve been doing it all year, but the rest of us, we have to depend on the kindness of strangers.
In 2014, Jason Coskrey of the Japan Times and I fired off our first stories after the final out of Game 4, and got to the field looking for the Hawks’ manager’s presser. We’d both been to dozens of them at Fukuoka Dome, but hadn’t been there in a long time. All the beat writers were gone, all the doors were closed and we couldn’t figure out how to get into the lounge where the Hawks skipper was meeting the press. There was, of course, no video, nothing online, nothing organized.
That’s the way NPB rolls. Virtually everything is up to the teams at all times. No one takes charge of quality control except in the most abstract fashion.
Thus, it is only through the generosity of the managers, the Hawks’ Kimiyasu Kudo and the Giants’ Tatsunori Hara, that we will know who the following day’s starters are.
Game 1 will see Hawks ace Kodai Senga, who led the PL in wins, ERA and strikeouts, against Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano, who led both leagues with 14 wins.
It will be the first time the two have faced each other in an official game, and Senga becomes the second pitcher to start Game 1 in four consecutive Japan Series following former Giants ace Tsuneo Horiuchi. Horiuchi started four of the Giants’ last five Game 1s in their streak of nine consecutive Japan Series championships. If the Hawks win their fourth straight over the next week, SoftBank’s streak will be second longest to the Giants.
It’s not brain surgery
This is the 20th anniversary of the infamous brain surgeon series between the then-Daiei Hawks and Giants. After Game 2, the teams traveled to Fukuoka Dome for Game 3 the next day, rather than on Tuesday, which became a travel day.
The Hawks won their first PL championship in Fukuoka in 1999, the club’s 11th season in Kyushu since being purchased by the Daiei supermarket chain’s owner after the 1988 season. The Hawks, founded by the Nankai Electric Railroad in the 1930s, crashed and burned after 1977 when manager Katsuya Nomura was exiled because of his messy personal life.
From 1978 to 1998, the Hawks posted a .427 winning percentage, easily the worst in Japan during those years. So with no likelihood of hosting a Japan Series in the immediate future, someone in the front office failed to block the rental of Fukuoka Dome for a neurosurgeon’s convention during the series. The club ended up paying a 30 million yen fine (about $300,000).
Designated hitters all the way
Nippon Professional Baseball on Thursday announced that due to the pandemic — which eliminated interleague play and has prevented PL pitchers from hitting all season — the designated hitter rule will be available to teams in every game, regardless of the home team’s league.
This is the second time for the Japan Series to have a universal designated hitter and the first time since 1985. The DH was first introduced in the Pacific League in 1975 but wasn’t allowed into the Japan Series until 1985.
It began on a one-year DH, one-year no DH, rotation but that only lasted until 1986, when pitchers batted in all games for the last time. Since then, the pitchers hit in the CL parks but not in the PL stadiums.
The thing about the DH and the Central League is that a lot of CL teams aren’t really equipped with a big run producer who is a natural for the DH slot due to defensive limitations. With the exception of the Yomiuri Giants, who used to spend every winter vacuuming up big name aging sluggers, most CL teams really didn’t have a DH option and had to turn to guys who neither got on base nor hit for extra bases.
As one can see below, while CL teams have posted pathetic DH numbers, the Giants have not, and have instead been every bit as good as their opponents.
With one big exception, another unbelievably home run from the amazing Yuki Yanagita, the Lotte Marines swung the bat better in their 3-3 loss in Saturday’s first game of the Pacific League Climax Series to the SoftBank Hawks.
Hawks ace Kodai Senga gave up three runs, the first two on decent second-inning pitches that resulted in a single and a Hisanori Yasuda home run. He gave up another in the third when he paid for mistakes to Tatsuhiro Tamura and Takashi Ogino. The Marines have done well all year to adjust to the Hawks and prepare for them, and this one looked it was going to be another one of those days.
Mima, too, made mistakes, probably more than Senga, but got away with them in the first inning, but not in the sixth, when the Hawks tied it on an error.
The Hawks should have scored a run in the first, but Ogino robbed them of a leadoff single before they loaded the bases with one out and ended it on a double play. Yanagita cut the lead in the fourth to 2-1 with a home run over the wall in center off an improbably low pitch.
Mima then got out of a jam in the fifth. Shortstop Yudai Fujioka tried to barehand a chopper and whiffed. The ball rolled toward left, and Taisei Makihara reached on a leadoff infield double. A walk on a dubious 3-2 pitch put two on, but Takuya Kai struck out foul bunting pitches out of the zone. With two out and two in scoring position, Akira Nakamura appeared to be the victim of makeup calls from the ump. He took a dubious 3-1 strike and another on 3-2 to end it.
The end for Mima came in the sixth. Yanagita and Yurisbel Gracial singled off mistakes and a sacrifice put the tying run in scoring position. Alfredo Despaigne singled off Taiki Tojo, and Makihara chopped one to second with Gracial at third. Second baseman Shogo Nakamura looked the lead runner back, tagged Despaigne for the second out, and threw to first, where Seiya Inoue dropped the ball.
Gracial, broke for home as Nakamura threw, and Inoue’s drop allowed him to score the tying run as he slid in head-first.
Livan Moinelo worked a 1-2-3 eighth and got the win in relief after Hirokazu Sawamura surrendered the lead in the home half on two walks and two infield singles. Takuya Kai hit another chopper to Fujikoka, who fielded it but couldn’t nail the runner at first.
“Hey. A hit is a hit,” Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo said.
Yuito Mori then did the honors in the ninth with another 1-2-3 inning.
The Climax Series gives the league champs a one-win advantage in the final stage, while the home team wins all tie (games are tied after 12 innings), and all games are played at the higher-seeded team’s park. This year’s PL series was cut from two stages to one, with the final stage reduced from six games to four. The Hawks’ one-win advantage means they have a 2-0 lead and should the game be tied after the top of the 12th inning on Sunday, the series will be over.
There’s a lot to be said for foreplay
The series, as I’ve written before is closer to foreplay than climax, since it follows the pennant race, and only serves to pick a league’s team to the the Japan Series, where Nippon Professional Baseball’s championship is decided.
The Central League which looks on fun and a good time as some kind of threat to the purity of the game, used the pandemic as an excuse to get rid of its foreplay series, I mean CS, in a kind of return to the 2004-2006 seasons when the PL teams were playing meaningful postseason games and the CL champs were playing with themselves in intrasquad games.
Ramirez goes out with win against Giants
Alex Ramirez, who won both of his CL MVP awards with the Yomiuri Giants, finished his managing term with the DeNA BayStars with a 5-4 come-from-behind win at Yokohama Stadium against his former team.
Ramirez received flowers and hugs from his former Giants skipper, Tatsunori Hara, who urged him to make a comeback, “I told him to get back in the game.”
Active roster moves 11/14/2020
Deactivated players can be re-activated from 11/24