Pitcher Kodai Senga’s future lies in the balance. The right-hander, who has long asked the SoftBank Hawks to post him to the majors only to be refused, is now eying international free agency after the 2022 season.
But while that may seem a long way off, the future of the Hawks’ ace could be decided as early as next month. If the Hawks are cautious with their ace in the same way they were cautious with another major league aspirant, star center fielder Yuki Yanagita in 2019, then Senga may be screwed.
In the 2019 season, the Hawks took every possible precaution with Yanagita as he rehabbed from a leg injury.
Yanagita, a five-tool major league-style outfielder who had told everyone his dream was to play in the majors, had been targeting 2021 as the year he would report to camp, not on Feb. 1 in Miyazaki, but in March in either Florida or California after nine years on the Hawks’ first team.
Then he got hurt. He was deactivated on April 8, 2019, but was not reactivated until Aug. 21, and when the season ended, his service time clock stood at 7 years, 135 days — 10 days short of an eighth year, meaning his 2021 major league move was delayed — and eventually abandoned when the Hawks offered him a huge multiyear contract to stay in Japan.
One would think the Hawks would cut Yanagita some slack. From 2015 to 2018, Yanagita produced four straight MVP-caliber seasons and became the second player in Japanese pro baseball history to lead his league in slugging and on-base percentage four seasons in a row.
But the Hawks took no chances with their star, and now they’re in the same situation with Senga.
Senga missed three months after hurting his ankle in his season debut, and with the 60 days he gets for being hurt on the field of play, his service time clock now stands, by my best estimate, at 7 years, 83 days.
If the Hawks fail to reach the playoffs, a possibility this year, they will have 70 days left on their calendar after the Olympic break. If Senga is deactivated even once during that stretch, the 28-year-old will be in danger of not qualifying for free agency until the 2023 season, meaning he couldn’t report to a major league camp until after he turns 31.
When Tokyo’s Olympic organizers decided that the best way to have the Olympics that were “100 percent going to be held in front of crowds starting on July 24, 2020” actually take place starting on July 23, 2021, was to hold them behind closed doors, a door was left open for fans to attend the events held outside Tokyo and its neighbouring prefectures.
That door began to close on Friday when Hokkaido asked that no fans would be admitted to soccer games at Sapporo Dome, and on Saturday, when Fukushima prefecture followed suit by asking that its venue, Azuma Stadium in Fukushima, bar fans. This means that no fans will be able to attend any of the Olympic baseball or softball games.
The Olympic farce is now coming full circle. To promote the games, and the need for Japan to host them, they were billed as the “Reconstruction Olympics,” to assist in the recovery of the northeastern prefectures ravaged by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent nuclear disaster in Fukushima.
Of course, that was all for show in order for money and grift to be syphoned off and pocketed in Tokyo. If the government really gave a rat’s ass about the Tohoku region, it could have wisely invested billions of dollars on education, tech and infrastructure there instead of on things like torch relays and PR campaigns to show how spending money on Tokyo was important to rebuild Japan’s northeast Pacific coast.
There was also baseball
On Friday, Nippon Professional Baseball entered its final week before it goes into summer hibernation for its all-star games and the Olympics. A day after both league leaders won on Friday, both lost on Saturday.
The Pacific League-leading Orix Buffaloes suffered a 3-1 loss in Fukuoka to the fourth-place SoftBank Hawks, who are 4-1/2 back. The Rakuten Eagles lost to fall into third, with the Lotte Marines pulling out a 4-4 tie with Nippon Ham to move into second although in a virtual tie with Rakuten.
In the Central League, the second-place Yomiuri Giants whipped the Hanshin Tigers, trimming the leaders’ cushion to 2-1/2 games, while the third-place Swallows fell to the last-place Hiroshima Carp to say 4-1/2 off the pace. The Chunichi Dragons won to move within 7-1/2 games of the Swallows.
Hawks 3, Buffaloes 1
At Fukuoka’s PayPay Dome, SoftBank’s Nick Martinez (7-2) struck out nine while allowing a run over six innings, while Yuki Yanagita drove in two home runs with his 19th homer and scored the other for the Hawks.
The Buffaloes took a 1-0 lead on a third-inning Yuma Mune RBI double, only for the Hawks to get their first hit with two outs in the home half, a Masaki Mori single followed by Yanagita’s blast off Sachiya Yamasaki (4-6).
Cuban lefty Livan Moinelo pitched his first game for the Hawks since May 23, having been away with his national team, struck out Adam Jones to complete a scoreless eighth before Sho Iwasaki recorded his second save.
Lions 6, Eagles 2
At Sendai’s Rakuten Seimei Park, Seibu’s Tatsuya Imai (6-3) issued seven walks, hit a batter, allowed four hits over seven innings, but only one run, while the visitors tattooed former Lions ace Hideaki Wakui (6-6) for six runs over three innings.
Marines 4, Fighters 4
At Chiba’s Zozo Marine Stadium, Lotte’s Leonys Martin tied it with a two-run home run, his PL-leading 20th. Nippon Ham’s Yushi Shimizu regained the visitors’ lead in the eighth with a solo homer, but the Marines manufactured a tying run in the home half on a one-out Brandon Laird walk, a Koshiro Wada stolen base, a throwing error and a sacrifice fly for Martin’s third RBI of the game.
Giants 8, Tigers 1
At Koshien Stadium, Yomiuri lefty C.C. Mercedes (5-1) allowed a run over 7-2/3 innings, and the Giants worked over rookie lefty Masashi Ito (5-5) for six runs, five earned, over four innings to take the loss for Hanshin.
The Giants loaded the bases in the first on Hayato Sakamoto’s double and a pair of walks before Zelous Wheeler singled in the first run. Takayuki Kajitani was hurt when hit by a pitch with the bases loaded, two more runs scored on a ground out and an error.
Wheeler hit his 10th homer, Sakamoto his 11th and Kazuma Okamoto his CL-leading 26th, while Jerry Sands accounted for the Tigers’ lone run with his 16th.
Carp 5, Swallows 0
At Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium, Hiroshima rookie Haruki Omichi (4-2) allowed two singles and a walk over seven-plus innings and three relievers retired the final six batters. Rookie Carp catcher Tomoki Ishihara singled in two runs in the second off Juri Hara (0-1), who was pulled after 3-2/3 innings. Shogo Sakakura made it 3-0 in the eighth with his third home run.
Dragons 6, BayStars 2
At Vantelin Dome Nagoya, Chunichi’s Takahiro Matsuba (1-2) was able to pitch out of trouble with the exception of surrendering a two-run sixth-inning home run to Neftali Soto, his 15th. The lefty allowed eight hits but no walks while striking out four. Kosuke Fukudome reached base four times, doubled, scored twice and drove in an insurance run with his second home run.
Eagles vs Lions: Rakuten Seimei Park Miyagi 1 pm, 12 midnight EDT