Sunday, August 9, 2009

Rakuten Golden Eagles 3 at Yakult Swallows 4 (Eastern League) - August 7, 2009

Continuing my quest to see all 6 minor league parks based in Tokyo, I decided to take advantage of what began as a beautiful day to head up to Toda to catch another Yakult Swallows game.

Getting There

The stadium is located along the Arakawa River which separates Tokyo from it's northern prefectural neighbor, Saitama. You can take a train to Musashi Urawa station and then grab a bus to the Doman Green Park, from where it is a 10-minute walk to the ballpark. But given the nice weather, I decided to try to cycle there - it's only about 15 miles from where I live, which given Tokyo's traffic, should take just over an hour.

So I left the house around 11 am for the 1:30 pm start and biked northwest, using Highway 17 and crossing into Saitama over Todabashi. From there, it's a short ride through some suburban areas, but I did manage to get lost for a few minutes. Once re-oriented, I found Doman Green Park and soon spotted the large fencing that denoted a ballpark. I arrived at 12:30, parking my bicycle just behind the right field fence. As I removed my helmet, I heard a large thump - it was batting practice and a ball had landed behind me - I don't know where it ended up but an older gentleman was also looking for it, unsuccessfully.

The Stadium

To use a word like stadium to describe this place does a great disservice to real stadiums around the world. This place is small, with one seating section behind home plate, about 15 feet up. With 6 rows of benches, perhaps 100 people can sit here. There is also a few seats at field level. Behind the park is a large hill from which many fans watch the game using lawn chairs, which are much more comfortable than the benches. There is one drink machine (even the players are forced to use it!) and no food at all.

The field is unique in that it is entirely artifical turf, since the major league Yakult team plays on a turf field at Jingu. Bullpens are down the line, with fences to prevent foul balls from hitting the players there. The scoreboard is very small, and doesn't show hits or errors, or the lineups.

Still, this is a fun place to watch a game. Of course, it's free, which is a good start. I spent 7 innings on the benches behind home plate, which are not very comfortable, especially after a long bike ride. I then moved down to field level to take some pictures, and was amazed. I found a standing spot about 30 feet away from home plate, next to the visitor's on-deck circle. I had never seen such high quality baseball from this close or this particular angle. It was fantastic - you could hear everything and really see the break on the pitches. I wish I had come down earlier, being so close to the action is mesmerizing, especially when the game is close.

The Game

This was the 10th meeting between Yakult and Rakuten, with the Golden Eagles winning 8 and tying 1 so far. This was a surprising fact as Rakuten was the worst team in the Eastern League and Yakult was just below .500. It seemed like their poor performance against the league's whipping boys was costing the Swallows a chance at the post-season.

The first 6 innings whizzed by behind some great pitching from Rakuten starter Hideaki Asai, who has spent several seasons with the big club but struggled earlier this year and was sent down. He gave up only 2 hits over 6 innings, but one was a monster homer from Yakult DH Yuichi.

Swallows' starter Hiromitsu Takagi was just as good, yielding 1 run over 6 innings. It wasn't until the 7th when things began to get interesting. Hiroki Yamada relieved Takagi and gave up a long double to rookie Taishi Nakagawa. A weak single by leadoff hitter Yosuke Hiraishi gave the Eagles a 2-1 lead. In the bottom of the 7th, Asai remained in the game, and gave up a walk to Yuichi, a double to Tsuyoshi Ueda, and then a 2-run single to Ryo Yoshimoto. Despite the struggles, Asai was left in and induced a double play from Munehiro Shida to keep the score 3-2.

But Yamada couldn't hold the lead, giving up a single and walk with one out. This brought pinch-hitter Koichi Isobe, a veteran on the downside of his career. The Rakuten fans cheered and Isobe delivered, knocking a base hit up the middle on the first pitch he saw. It was 3-3!

In the bottom of the inning, Koki Watanabe, a successful reliever for 3 seasons with the big club, was brought in. With one out, league batting leader Toshihiro Nakao drove a ball deep to right center and legged out a triple! Takayuki Saito had a chance to give Yakult the lead, but struck out on a curve ball, continuing a terrible game for him. This brought Yuichi to the plate, and he smacked a 1-0 pitch for a run-scoring single and the Swallows were back on top.

Yuya Kamada came in to close out the game and got two quick outs. Weak-hitting Tatsuya Shiokawa, who had 4 ground outs so far, dribbled one to first. Saito bent to get it and then the ghost of Bill Buckner appeared - the ball went through Saito's legs into right field and the game continued. A single by Akihisa Makida pushed Shiokawa to third. DH Ginji then grounded one up the middle - but Masayoshi Miwa ranged to his right, slid to grab the ball and threw to second for the force - game over! Swallows get their first win over the Eagles 4-3!

Bad Game for Saito

Poor Takayuki Saito - after 10 years with the Giants, he is now playing on the Swallows minor league team, and doesn't seem to be enjoying it much. He went 0-4 with a strikeout (with the go-ahead runner on 3rd), grounded into a double play, as well as making two errors in the field. He even dropped a pop fly that didn't get counted as an error! Just a forgettable afternoon for him.

The Long Ride Home

As the game neared an end, I noticed that storm clouds were forming and the distant rumble of thunder could be heard. It had drizzled during the game for a couple of innings but had cleared up. Still, those clouds looked ominous, so I made my way home as quickly as I could. Unfortunately, I wasn't as quick as I needed to be and with about 45 minutes to go, the storm caught up to me. Initially it wasn't much, just a light rain, but this slowly became a torrential downpour, drenching me and my crappy knapsack for the last 30 minutes of the ride. My camera was not in a safe, dry spot and suffered some water damage; not sure if its permanent or not, but the few pictures I took are not accessible right now, which is why this post is pic-free. Next time, I'll take the train.

*** Update ***

The damage to the card was not permanent, so I was able to get the pics, which have been appended at the bottom. The damage to the camera was permanent, so I got a new one.

Up Next

I've got one last minor league park to see down in Yokosuka, so will try to catch a game there next weekend when Yakult visits. After that, there's a game between the Eastern League Futures and the Shikoku-Kyushu Island League Selects that I'd like to see as it's played in Omiya Stadium, a ballpark I've yet to visit. Note that the Shikoku-Kyushu Island League is where ex-Yankee Hideki Irabu recently moved. After that, there's nothing on the schedule. With baseball ending, there's not much left to watch here in Japan, so I'll be planning another trip to the US shortly.



This is really a minor league park - you can see the elevated stands and a few people standing near the fence

This is the view from the stands.

Rakuten DH Ginji fouls one off

The Swallows dugout

Isobe singles in the tying run

Nakao swings

Hiraishi makes the 2nd last out of the game.

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