Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Baseball/Soccer Doubleheader in Chiba - August 19, 2009

OK, last week I said that I wouldn't be doing much watching sports over the next little while. Hot weather, the high school ball tournament, and my new subscription to MLB.TV were keeping me at home. But after a week in the house (except for an excursion to Yokosuka on Sunday evening) I found a sports doubleheader in Chiba which was interesting enough to get me off my ass and outside for a few hours.

The first game was an Eastern League Challenge Match in Kamagaya at 1 pm, followed by a J League game in Soga between Nagoya Grampus and JEF United Chiba at 7 pm.

Game 1 - Nippon Ham Fighters 11 at Eastern League Futures 13

Who are The Futures?

The Eastern League has 7 teams. It's strange but true. Back in 2005, the Orix Blue Wave (based in Kobe) and Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes merged, and a new team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, was created in Sendai, in northern Japan. As the Japanese minor league squads want to remain relatively close to their major league counterparts, it was decided to give the Eastern League 7 teams and the Western League 5. This way, the 5 major teams in the Tokyo metro area plus the Eagles and the Fighters (now based in Sapporo) would remain close to their minor clubs.

Given the small size of Japan and the fact that the major clubs travel around the country, I'm not sure why the minor leagues just didn't form one 12-team league and have regular road trips. I doubt the cost would be that prohibitive. Why not just have both squads travel together?

Well, that wasn't the decision, and two leagues with an odd number of teams were re-formed instead. In a sport such as baseball, having an odd number of ballclubs is not a very smart idea. Every day, one team is off. This is particularly bad with young players who should be gaining as much experience as possible. So the Eastern League came up with the idea of creating a Futures team, composed of very young players who have yet to see action at the big-league level, to occasionally play an Eastern League team who would otherwise be enjoying an off day. The players on the Futures team change often, as there cannot be players from the team they are playing.

Swallows pitcher Rafael Fernandes from Brazil, here relieving in the 8th. No walks but gave up a long homer to Seiichi Ohira

The Futures play 44 games during the season (only one against the Eagles up in Sendai though) and were 6-20 so far, so not really providing much opposition. When I saw they had a game in Kamagaya today, and there was a nearby JLeague game in the evening, I decided to forgo the Koshien for a day and head on over to Chiba to see what was up.

The Game

Normally, I would recap the game here. But today was really a bad game. The Futures won 13-11 for their 2nd consecutive victory after losing 10 straight.

But the story of the game was the terrible pitching and defense that led to long, long, innings, resulting in a 3.5 hour display of crap baseball. Even worse, although the Futures were the home team, they batted in the bottom of the ninth despite leading 12-11, adding another run and 10 more minutes to my misery. This is due to the rule that says in Futures games, exactly 9 innings must be played (no extra innings).

From a competitive point of view, the game was good. There were a few lead changes and several good hits. In particular, one long foul ball that cleared the netting some 350 feet away and hit off a car whose owner doubtless thought he was safely parked. After that, there was a crowd around the car for a couple of innings, and I'd say that ball travelled at least 480 feet. Quite impressive.

Despite the back-and-forth nature of the game, it was really just poor pitching that ruled the day. I'll let the numbers tell the rest of the story:

100 batters to the plate.
29 hits, 15 walks, 3 hit batsmen - 47% of batters reached
3 errors
3 wild pitches
2 lost fly balls
379 total pitches, 171 balls, 208 strikes (only 55% strikes, ugh)

To be fair, Fighters' starter Yoshinori Tateyama pitched a great first inning. He's a big leaguer though, probably just getting some rehab work in, and he left after the first frame. Sadly, the next 8 innings were a nightmare for the bullpen and the fans too! A few shots below:

Ryuichi Watanabe pops one up

Yohei Kaneko grounds out

The Futures plate yet another run

Lucky Number

One last note before I permanently forget this game. They were giving away Futures game-worn jerseys - the first 300 fans received a lucky number card and midway through the game, 30 numbers were posted as winners. This is a pretty good deal I thought, considering the game was free. Sadly though, I did not win, nor did I see anyone who had won. So I'm not 100% sure what the prize was.

Between Games

For normal Fighters home games, there is a bus from Kamagaya Station as the ballpark is a bit far. But as this game was not normal, there was no bus. Many other fans were also confused by this, but there were plenty of taxis at the station, so it was not a problem getting to the stadium. I figured there's be a few taxis after the game as well, but I was wrong. As the game went extra-long, I didn't think walking back was an option. Fortunately I discovered a Fighters Bus that would take me to another nearby station. As you can see in the picture below, the bus is painted in Kamagaya Fighters colours, another way the team has become part of the community.

The bus ride was 40 minutes long, and once it arrived, it was a further 30-minute train ride to Soga station, which is where J League squad JEF United play.

Game 2 - Nagoya Grampus 2 at JEF United Chiba 0

Fukuda Denshi Arena

Their home ground is known as Fukuda Denshi Arena, the name coming from a company that makes medical equipment. It's a 10-minute walk from Soga station, and as you cross the final street, you'll have a good view of the outside of the stadium. There's a small plaza you traverse to get to the main entrance. It appears as if there are several entrances (certainly the visiting fans are escorted to a different gate) but I was running late so I didn't do much of a tour.

One of my favorite feelings is entering a new stadium for the first time. There's always something to catch your eye, whether it be the gorgeous green field or the architecture. Here it was no different - I entered and was immediately struck but the small size of the stadium. There wasn't a bad seat in the place - though I quickly realized that nearly all the seats in my assigned area were taken! These fans get their early! Fortunately being alone, I did manage to find a single open seat close to the field and quickly claimed it.

The JEF cheering section

The arena is built for soccer. It's a nice open-air stadium with a small capacity of just over 19,000 which really allows the crowd to become part of the game. There are two levels of seating, but with only about 12 rows in the bottom level, the upper seats provide a good view as well. There is a small track running around the pitch, but this is for benches, and so you are much closer than in other multi-purpose stadiums. Still, I wish they would build a stadium like those in England, where you are right on top of the action.

As the stadium is located next to Tokyo Bay, there was occasionally a light breeze that was much needed on this humid night. I noticed only a couple of food stands, and there were long lines which precluded me enjoying a snack before the game. Typical Japanese fare was offered though, with nothing particularly memorable.

About the only negative is that the stadium next to a steel factory, and occasionally during the game there would be some strange industrial odors wafting through.

Overall, it's a very comfortable and well-designed stadium that I would recommend to any sports fan.

JEF vs Nagoya

Wikipedia gives a good history on JEF United Ichihara Chiba. They are the longest-serving team in Japan's top league, but they are in danger of relegation this year. Currently lying 16th out of 18 teams and 6 points out of safety, they had only won 4 of 21 games, scoring a goal a game on average. With the bottom 3 teams to be relegated and only 13 games left, JEF needs to start getting points quickly.

Unfortunately, today's opposition was Nagoya Grampus, a team that finished 3rd last season. They are struggling this season, standing 13th in the table, but they are in the Champions League quarterfinals, where they are to face Kawasaki Frontale next month. So I was interested to see what sort of team they had.

Joshua Kennedy watches the ball with 3 Chiba defenders

The first thing I noticed was the tall foreign player for Nagoya. Turns out he's Joshua Kennedy, who also plays for the Australian National Team. I kept my eyes on him, at 194 cm tall, he dominated the box. Sure enough he scored the first goal 24 minutes in. It was much like a hockey goal: the ball was crossed in as Kennedy charged the net. He deflected the ball at goal where JEF keeper Ryo Kushino parried it back to Kennedy who seemingly accidentally knocked the ball home. The moral is "Always charge the net". The JEF fans were silenced momentarily as Kennedy and his teammates celebrated. But after a few seconds, the fans began their chants again, urging their team to come back.

Nagoya had different ideas though, and kept the pressure on for the remainder of the half, missing a couple of long strikes just off the top of the crossbar, but unable to add to their lead.

JEF started the second half with a glorious chance, when Tomi Shimamura was sent in alone only to send it just wide. The fans groaned in unison, knowing that they'd not get a better chance. After that, Nagoya's defense tightened up, and their offense began to pressure Kushino again. Finally, a cross into the box was headed home by Kenji Tamada to give Grampus the insurance they needed as they won 2-0.

Overall, this was a good game, much better than the baseball I endured earlier. The fans were supportive but sadly their team lacks the scorer they need to take advantage of what few chances they get. But it was interesting to watch Nagoya, who are clearly superior, and who will provide tough opposition to Kawasaki in next month's Champions League fixtures.

Next Up

There's another doubleheader in Chiba next week - this one features the Marines minor leagues in the morning, and their major leaguers in the evening. I think it's worth checking those games out. Then on Thursday, there's a game between the Futures and the all-stars from the Shikoku-Kyushu Island League in Omiya - a park which looks quite nice. Friday I'm planning to return to Lotte Urawa to get a good seat as my previous visit there left me on the edge of a 50-year old bench. As always, I'll post updates here.



No comments:

Post a Comment