Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Yakult Swallows 0 at Yomiuri Giants 1 (11, Eastern League) - July 29, 2009

After watching some high school ball on the weekend, it was time to return to the minor leagues. There are 6 minor league parks in the Tokyo area, and today I visited my 3rd - Yomiuri Giants Stadium. The Yakult Swallows were visiting, finishing up a 3-game series, so I jumped on the Shinjuku line and headed to Keio Yomiuriland station to catch the game.

Yomiuri Giants Stadium

The stadium is located next to a large theme park called Yomiuri Land. Yomiuri is the conglomerate that runs the Yomiuri Shimbun, the newspaper with the largest circulation in the world, and also owner of Japan's version of the New York Yankees - the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants. So it's natural that they would place their minor league team next to an amusement park - Daddy can watch the baby Giants while Mom and the kids ride the roller coasters.

Built into the side of a hill, the stadium is reached via "The Road to the Giants" - a 283-step staircase that leads from the station. Alternatively you can pay 200 yen and take a gondola ride over all of Yomiuri Land, which gives a great bird's-eye view of the ballpark (shown above) as well as allowing you to see Tokyo in the distance. When you reach the other side of the gondola, you can walk back to the stadium in about 10 minutes. I highly recommend this option, it's pretty neat to see the ballpark from the air. But be warned - the gondola cars are not air conditioned and are sweltering in the summer heat - small hand fans are provided to keep yourself cool on the 5-minute ride.

As you enter the stadium ground, you will notice a ticket window. Games here are not free as they were in the other minor league parks I saw. All seats are 700 yen, and you can sit where you please. The seating bowl is about 12 feet above the field, which lets you look down on the players, even from the front row. Seats go from first base to third base, but the entire stand is behind netting to protect you. As you can see in the picture to the right, there are no backs to the seats, which can be slightly uncomfortable after a while. There are some benches well down the lines, but I suspect these are used for overflow crowds as they were mostly empty. There is a small food shack that sells curry among other local favourites, and a Giants souvenir stand, but that's about it. Still, it's a lot better than the fields that Lotte and Seibu are using.

The field is typical - all dirt infield and a grass outfield. The scoreboard is quite nice for the minor leagues and shows both lineups throughout the game. Dimensions are symmetrical at 322 feet down the lines and 400 feet to center. Beyond the fence you can see the roller coasters and hear people screaming as they zoom up and down.

All in all, this is the best minor league facility I've seen so far in Japan, which is not saying much.

The Game

Masafumi Togano started for the Giants and was excellent, giving up only 2 hits through 8 innings. He wasn't overpowering, but kept the Swallows off-balance with good command (only 1 walk) and a great sinker, getting 11 groundouts in that time. Unfortunately, his offense couldn't help him. Yakult starter Tatsuyoshi Masubuchi was not as dominant as Togano, but managed to hold the Giants scoreless through 6 frames. Two Yakult relievers had perfect innings, so we were still scoreless as the top of the 9th opened.

Speedy rookie Daisuke Fujimura is out at first

With one out, Usami Makitani singled off Togano and advanced on a ground out. Toshihiro Nakao then singled to right and Makitani stormed home. Right fielder Daijiro Tanaka picked up the ball and threw straight to home. Takanori Hoshi caught the ball just as Makitani slammed into him. When the dust settled, Hoshi held the ball in his barehand and the umpire made the out signal. A great game-saving play from the Giants defense!

Taishi Ota is hit by a pitch

In the bottom of the 9th, Yuya Kamada relieved for Yakult and promptly gave up 2 singles. But the Giants couldn't capitalize after a failed sacrifice and we were headed to extras, still tied at 0.

Togano was replaced by Soichi Fujita, who joined the Giants last season after 10 years with the Lotte Marines. Ex-Giant Takayuki Saitoh led off with a single and was running when Munehiro Shida lined a shot into right field. Saitoh rounded second and headed for third, but Tanaka threw another strike, the ball landing right in the third baseman's glove just as Saito slid in. OUT! Saitoh sat on the base, apparently stunned that he was out, but it was an incredible throw by Tanaka, who had saved the game twice now with arm. Yusuke Kajimoto doubled and the Swallows were threatening again, but Fujita escaped with a strikeout and a grounder.

The Giants did nothing in their half of the 10th, so we entered the 11th, still looking for the first run of the game. I should note that the game would end in a tie after 12 innings, so I was really hoping for at least one run. Yomiuri rookie Keisuke Saito got 1 out before giving up a single to Makitani and then a walk. Saito was relieved by Takefumi Miyamoto, another rookie, who promptly gave up a single to Nakao. Makitani was wisely stopped at third as rightfielder Tanaka came up throwing. So the bases were loaded with only 1 out - Yakult surely had to score!

The Giants brought in Levi Romero, a flame-thrower who has spent several years in the US minor leagues. He was to face Saitoh, who swung at the first pitch and grounded weakly to shortstop. Unbelievably, the Giants managed to turn the double play and Romero pointed skyward as he danced off the field.

Tsuyoshi Ueda grounds back to the pitcher

In the bottom of the 11th, the Giants made two quick outs off Kamada. Pinch-hitter Noriyoshi Ohmichi was announced and the crowd murmured. He's a veteran with over 20 years and 1300 games in the Japanese major leagues. Could he end things? He swung and belted the ball to left center. It looked like Nakao was tracking it as he went back, back, on the track, and jumped.....IT'S GONE! Nakao slumped to the ground, his glove empty, as Ohmichi circled the bases to cheers from the remaining fans. What a fantastic finish to an excellent ballgame. Even though Yakult lost, it was nice to see an oldtimer like Ohmichi still able to bring it at 39 years of age.

This was probably the best game I have seen in Japan - solid pitching, excellent defense, and a memorable finish. Along with the interesting ballpark and the gondola ride, a great experience to start the second half of the season.

Lucky Draw

One additional item is that each ticket has a lucky number printed on it. After the fifth inning, while the grounds crew fixes the field, they announce several prizes. I came close to winning some Giants tickets, but the last digit was different. Oh well. Still, it's a good idea, and I'm surprised other teams haven't started to improve their minor league facilities. There's so much opportunity here to generate revenue and create a community atmosphere in Tokyo's suburbs - I hope someone comes to their senses and makes Japanese minor league ball the attraction it deserves to be.

Next Game

Yakult hosts Yomiuri on Friday in Saitma, although rain is again forecast. With all the crappy weather here, I'm not going to bother planning which games to attend in advance - I'll decide that day. So stay tuned for updates at random intervals, at least until the rainy season is really over.



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