Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Nippon Ham Fighters 9 at Chiba Lotte Marines 2 (Eastern League) - August 25, 2009

Occasionally, the minor league club of the Chiba Lotte Marines holds a game in Chiba Marine Stadium, home of the big team. These games start at 11 am, as there is also a night game to prepare for. I've been meaning to get out there for some time and when I saw the schedule had a day-night doubleheader for August 25th, I thought there'd be no better time to revisit Marine Stadium.

Getting There

The stadium is located a nice 15 minute walk from Kaihin Makuhari Station on the Keiyo line, about 30 minutes from Tokyo on the express train. The entire area is known as Makuhari and houses a large convention center called Makuhari Messe. The Tokyo Auto Show and other major events are held here on a regular basis and often there are more convention attendees than baseball fans in the area. If the walk is too long for you, there's a bus that only costs 100 yen and gets you there in 3 minutes.

The Stadium

Built next to Tokyo Bay, Chiba Marine Stadium is similar to the old cookie-cutter ballparks that dotted MLB back in the 70s and 80s. From the outside, the blue walls reminded me of Shea Stadium especially when I could see the ballpark from the train, just like noticing Shea as the 7 train approached. As you walk there, the stadium is hidden behind buildings and then trees; the only view is afforded from the top of a pedestrian bridge, as in the picture left. It's only after you pass through this small batch of trees that the whole stadium is visible. It's not bad looking, I just forgot to take a picture from up close. As this was an early game, there were hardly any fans around, but when there's a big league game, there's plenty of food choices out front.

Inside, there are two levels between the foul poles, and one level of bleachers in the outfield. Each section of seats is differently coloured, a rare concept in Japan and one that adds a bit of character to the park, particularly when it is nearly empty. There are also the Field Wing seats down the lines - these allow fans to be close to the action without a fence blocking your view. I sat here for an inning and think they are good value for the big league games at 4,400 yen. The stadium is small enough that the second level of seats is still very close to the action.

As you can see in the picture above, there are several holes in the walls behind the bleacher seats that allow wind to circulate through the stadium. I've seen games on TV where there is a strong gale blowing off the water and it can cause some funny things to happen to fly balls. Today, though, was a quiet day with a light breeze around occasionally cooling us off. The large scoreboard has a windspeed indicator along with the direction in which the wind is blowing, certainly a unique feature among all the ballparks I have visited.

Note the wind indicator as well as the blowout score

The field is artifical turf, and the fence measurements were typical for Japan, about 327 feet down the lines and 400 to center. There were a few typical food options, but I didn't partake as the game was so early and I wasn't that hungry. I would suggest buying your food outside the stadium; as I left the game I noticed them setting up a variety of booths and these definitely were more appealing than what was available inside.

Overall, this is a cozy park and a decent place to watch a game when the weather is nice. But when the wind is blowing at night, bring a jacket - it can get chilly here by the water.

The Game

The league-leading Marines were hosting the Nippon Ham Fighters, who I had seen last week lose to the Futures. First pitch was at 11 am, and it didn't take long for the fans to get woken up. After two quick outs, Fighters' rightfielder Atsushi Ugumori was at the plate. I checked his stats in my handy NPB players guide (more on that later) and noticed he had hit 10 homers in 2007 as a member of the minor league team. So he had some power, and sure enough, he hammered the next pitch to left field. Lotte leftfielder Juan Muniz simply turned and watched it sail into the empty seats and the Fighters led 1-0.

Things settled down after that though as both pitchers found a rhythm and after an hour, we were done four frames with the score still 1-0. In the fifth though, Lotte rookie starter Yuta Kimura gave up 3 runs and Nippon Ham was in control. That was all for Kimura, and he was replaced to start the 6th inning by developmental player (more on this later too) Akira Suzue. Let me say that Suzue needs more development. In one unfortunate inning, he gave up 5 hits and a walk leading to 5 runs and suddenly it was 9-0 Fighters.

Offensive star Seiichi Ohira, who tripled twice and drove in 3 runs

That was all Fighters starter Mitsuo Yoshikawa needed. He gave up a pair of runs in the 6th but was left in to complete the game, throwing 147 pitches in the effort. He wasn't overpowering, topping the gun at around 87 mph, but he managed to induce contact outs when he needed them. He struck out 8 and walked 5 while scattering 6 hits. I was surprised that they didn't take him out once the game was in hand, but I guess they were trying to rest their bullpen. Whatever the case, it was nice to see a complete game for a change and that some pitchers can actually throw 140 or more pitches without hurting their arm.

Chase Lambin fouls one off

The game was just over 2.5 hours, which was great. The first hour or so was heavenly - it was a bit cloudy so the sun wasn't too hot, and the light breeze kept it reasonably cool. I was in the first row above the Fighters dugout and just enjoying the good pitching. Once the sun came out in full force though, I sought some shade - it was abnormally hot down near the field. With a seat relatively far from the field, I hoped for a speedy conclusion to the game, and was rewarded as Yoshikawa shut down the Marines the rest of the way.

All-in-all though, this was a lot of fun. It's a weird feeling being home at 3 pm having already seen a professional baseball game. I was planning to stay for the second game, but with 5 hours to wait, not a lot to do in the area, and a pitching matchup that featured two spot starters, I decided to return home to update my faithful readers. Anyway, the game is on TV tonight, so I'll kick back and watch it here.

Edit: Lotte won the game 10-5 - glad I didn't stay for it.

NPB Players Guide

The best bargain in Japanese baseball is the NPB players guide, available at most stadiums for 400 yen. It contains very small bios of every player on every team, including the last 3 years of statistics. Given that each team has a roster that is not officially divided between the major and minor league squads, and that there is almost no player movement during the season, this book provides useful data from day 1 right through to the playoffs. Of course, it's only available in Japanese, so you have to be able to read the language, but still a good idea for any fan of Japanese baseball.

Developmental Players

In an earlier post, I made fun of how many players have numbers over 100. I thought this was due to the large number of players on each roster, but I was entirely mistaken. Each club has a limit of 70 players on the roster, split between the major and minor league teams. But some teams still want to sign more players for development purposes. This is what the ikusei (training) system is used for. The guys at NPB Tracker give a great explanation of the system and some examples of players who have made it to their big club through this process. It might be easier to think of the developmental players as non-roster invitees, although they spend the whole season with the team in an attempt to make the 70-man roster.

It seems to me to be that the ikusei system arises from only having one minor league team. In MLB, each club has 5-7 minor league clubs, allowing them to develop between 125-175 players. Here in Japan, there is little done in player development - good players are immediately assigned to the big club while the lesser lights battle it out in the minors, hoping for a chance. So the ikusei system allows teams to sign and develop players by getting them game action with the minor squad as well as with the touring Futures team.

One interesting note is that at today's game, Juan Muniz (shown below) of Lotte was playing. He was signed as an ikusei player back at the beginning of the year but was added to the roster on March 30th. What's surprising is his age: 32! Most ikusei players are young guys looking for a chance to play, but Muniz comes from Cuba, where he played on the national team. He spent a couple of seasons in Florida's minor league system but didn't make it there, instead coming to Japan. He's appeared in 48 games, hitting .352 with 10 home runs. So perhaps he's still got a shot at making it to the big club. I'll try to follow his progress and let you know.

Next Up

There's two more afternoon games this week - Thursday is the Futures vs the Shikoku-Kyushu Island League All-Stars in Omiya and Friday is a trip back to Lotte Urawa to see the Swallows and Marines. One of the benefits of seeing so many minor league games is that I'm getting to know the players now, so it will make following NPB more interesting from next season, especially if some of these guys get promoted.



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