Monday, July 27, 2009

Japanese High School Baseball - 4 games and lots of crying - July 26/27, 2009

As I mentioned yesterday, the Japanese High School Baseball tournament was conducting it's regional qualifiers in Tokyo over the past few days. With the majors and minors on their all-star breaks, I decided to check out some of the action - I've seen plenty of high-school games on TV but never gone to one live. So when Sunday dawned bright and clear, I grabbed a friend and we took the train over to Jingu Stadium to check out the Western Tokyo Quarterfinals. There were 119 teams at the beginning of this qualifier, so the quarterfinals should have been between some pretty good teams.

Scorching day

The temperature was somewhere around 35C (95F) and extremely humid, with not a cloud in the sky. As we arrived after the first game had completed (it started at 9:00 am, way too early on a Sunday), all the seats in the shaded section were taken, so we sat out in the open air. Despite copious amounts of sunscreen, a hat, a fan, and water, we were soon drenched in sweat. It was hot and uncomfortable, and became more so as the day progressed. The picture shows just how hot the fans are, except those lucky few in the shade. Ordering beer didn't help much, it was warm after just a few minutes. Suffice to say that Jingu Stadium on a hot day is not a nice place to be. But there was still some baseball to be played, so we tried our best to watch without passing out.

Game 1 - Nichidai2 7 - Hachioji 3

The first game featured Hachioji against Nichidai 2 (the second of 3 schools that are part of Japan University). Nichidai 2 has been to Koshien 4 times, while Hachioji has yet to make an appearance there, which would lead you to believe that Nichidai 2 was favoured.

I won't get into a play-by-play, but Hachioji had some early chances due to a lack of control from the Nichidai pitcher. But due to some mental errors and an over reliance on the sacrifice bunt, they came up empty handed after two innings, leaving 4 men on. Nichidai scored 1 in the second, added 4 in the 5th and 2 more in the 6th for a 7-0 lead. There is a mercy rule where if you are leading by 7 runs after 7 innings, the game is called. So Nichidai just needed to complete the shutout to finish things off, but naturally, Hachioji scored a run to prolong their misery.

They then added two more to make it reasonably close, but with the tying run in the on-deck circle, Nichidai's center fielder made a spectacular catch to end the game. The batter, who thought he had a 2-run double, collapsed on the basepaths like he had been shot, but in reality, he was just in tears. Making it to Koshien is a dream for all of these ballplayers, and they only get one or two chances, so to have it end on such a play was more than he could take. Nonetheless, he was consoled by his teammates and brought back to the closing ceremony, where both teams bow at each other and shake hands.

One interesting play in this game happened with Nichidai batting and the bases loaded and two outs. The batter struck out but the catcher dropped the ball. The baserunners ran while the catcher picked up the ball and stood there. The umpire made no out signal, as the catcher neglected to step on the plate for the final out. The defense was making it's way off the field, but the ruling was no out - the run scored and play continued with the next batter. One of the fun things about high school baseball is the mental errors players make - stuff you will rarely see in the majors. This one cost Hachioji two runs, and no doubt the catcher will spend a few sleepless nights thinking about that one.

A final note - Nichidai's pitching threw more balls than strikes but still won handily - a function of poor baserunning and overuse of the sacrifice by Hachioji - 3 times they sacrificed but gained no runs for their efforts.

Game 2 - Kodaira 9 - Kugayama 6

By the time the second game started, we were exhausted. We decided to stay as the first game was just over 2 hours long (high school games move quickly here) and this one should be as quick. Kugayama were known to be a strong team with 2 previous appearances at Koshien while Kodaira was still looking for its first. We found a shady spot and proceeded to watch a long, boring game that lasted over 3 hours. I didn't keep score, but Kugayama had the tying run at the plate with 1 out, only to see him line into an unassisted double play.

I think Kugayama's main mistake was starting their 2nd-string pitcher, who gave up 4 runs in his only inning. Perhaps they were taking Kodaira a bit lightly, but it seemed like they felt they could make it back, but they lost by 3. Of course, I'm not sure how tired their other pitchers were, but certainly their offense had trouble coming back.

These two teams play in the semi-finals tomorrow, I'll post an update later this week but expect Nichidai 2 to advance to the final.

Back for more

Monday was the semi-finals of the Eastern Tokyo regional. It started at 10 am, and by getting there early I was able to secure a front-row seat in the shaded second deck. The crowd was smaller than Sunday, but still a surprisingly good turnout for a weekday morning.

Game 3 - Teikyo 5 - Nishogakusha 0

Teikyo is one of Tokyo's best teams, having made 10 appearances in Koshien with 2 championships. Nishogakusha has yet to make it to the summer tournament, and they won't be going this year as Teikyo starter Hirahara pitched a great game, giving up 5 hits and no runs in 9 quick innings. Hirahara retired 14 in a row at one point, only allowed 1 runner to reach 3rd base, and contributed a double, an RBI single, and a run scored as Teikyo plated 5 to win easily. At one point late in the game, his pitches reached 147km/h, which is about 91mph, pretty good for a young kid. I'll have to find some info on him and see if he gets drafted, as he looks like he has some potential to make the pros in Japan. The picture above is actually M. Suzuki, the starter for Nishogakusha - he wasn't bad but his unorthodox windup was no match for Hirahara.

Game 4 - Yukigaya 7 - Seiritsu 1

Seiritsu batter fouls one off

I moved down to take some pictures of this game from the front row, so didn't really pay much attention. Yukigaya has 1 Koshien visit, while Seiritsu has 0. Yukigaya scored early to take a 5-0 lead and held on for a 7-1 win in a game that was not that exciting.

The Yukigaya cheering section in red watching their team bat

Cheering Sections

Each school has its own cheering section, composed of the brass band, cheerleaders, and players who aren't on the main team. When their team is batting, they are constantly singing, chanting, and making noise. I did sit near the cheering section for Seiritsu which was interesting - listening to a couple of the female students discussing which players were cute shows that baseball fans are the same the world over. Even as their team fell further behind, the cheers did not lose their enthusiasm.

I don't know why, but each section seemed to play the same two songs: We Will Rock You or Popeye the Sailor Man. I like these groups in general, as they show school spirit and make the game more interesting, but wish they could broaden their musical choice.

Teikyo's cheering section - not as big as expected

Final thoughts

It's much better watching these games on TV. The scorching heat and almost no place to sit with shade make things uncomfortable as the day goes on. On Monday, I did manage to get a seat underneath the roof, which improved things a bit, but the heat is still difficult to tolerate for several hours.

The baseball is entertaining as there are many things that you won't see in more advanced games. Mental errors abound naturally, as these are just kids playing in what might be the most important game of their lives. There were two catchers interference calls on the same guy, in another game an outfielder was slow on a single which allowed the batter to stretch it into a double. The outfielder was immediately pulled, despite it only being the 3rd inning.

Still, the lack of imagination from the managers is what really bugs me about these high school games. The first problem is the incredible overuse of the sacrifice bunt. If the first batter reaches, almost always the second batter would bunt. Why not force the pitcher to make an out - use the hit and run or something else. Even 3rd, 4th, 5th batters would be bunting rather than swinging away against a pitcher who was struggling. In almost all cases, the inning ended with no runs, or perhaps one. But as most games are not 1-run affairs, taking your team out of a potential rally just to follow some stupid baseball dogma is infuriating.

Other things that drove me nuts:

1) Fake pickoffs - where the pitcher would turn and pretend to throw to the base. No point to this. Please stop.

2) Sliding into first - you slow down when you slide and you are out anyway. Also if the throw is wild, you can't keep running. At least your uniform is dirty I guess.

3) The heat - did I mention that yet?

Anyway, that's it for Japanese high school baseball. It's fun and cheap entertainment, but not compelling. I'll follow the Tokyo teams in the tournament and let you know how they do, but won't be making the trip to Osaka myself.

Next game

It's raining so I skipped tonight's minor league game in Yokosuka, but hope to make it to 3 other minor league games this week and will let you know how they go.



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