Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tokyo Big 6 Baseball - October 17, 2009

I wrote about university baseball a couple of weeks ago when I saw a couple of Tohto University League games. Yesterday I went to watch the much more famous league: the Tokyo Big 6 University League. There are six large, famous schools in the Tokyo area: Hosei, Keio, Meiji, Rikkyo, Tokyo, and Waseda; and they've competed in this league since 1925. There are two seasons annually, one in the spring and one in the fall. Each team plays a best-of-3 series against each other team and the team with the most series wins is the champion for that season.

What's interesting is the discrepancy between the historical results of the schools. Four of them (Hosei, Keio, Meiji, and Waseda) have well over 1,000 wins and at least 30 championships (Hosei leads with 42, including the last one in the spring of this year), while Rikkyo has only 12 titles, the last coming a decade ago. This leaves poor Tokyo. They sport well over a thousand losses, and have never won a title. It's amazing that such futility can exist for 85 years unabated, especially when there are only 6 teams involved. This year is no different, as Tokyo has lost all 8 starts, including blowout scores of 12-2, 18-0, and 13-1.

So it made sense to find a weekend when Tokyo wasn't playing so I'd be more likely to see two competitive games. And that was this weekend, with defending champ Hosei taking on current leader Waseda, followed by Meiji battling Keio.

Game 1 Waseda 3- Hosei 3 (12 innings)

I arrived at the stadium about an hour before the 11am start and saw a line-up for the "shitei seki" which are tickets with assigned seat numbers. I wanted to sit behind the plate for the first game, so bought one of these at 1,300 yen and headed in. It was still early, so there weren't many fans there yet, but the cheering sections for each school were setting up and practicing their routines.

I watched both teams run BP with two batting cages - I guess there are so many players on the roster that they need two cages to get everyone their pre-game swings. The crowd slowly filled up and by game time, the free seating sections in the infield looked quite packed, although there were still plenty of seats in my area. There were also people sitting in the outfield, but they usually had several rows to themselves as you can see below. The announced crowd was 16,000, which was substantially larger than the 300 or so that watched the Tohto games.

One batting cage for lefties and one for righties.

Starting for Waseda was Yuki Saito, who led his high school to the Koshien championship 3 years ago. He's well known in Japan and is certainly the reason many of these fans are here.

In the bottom of the second, with the game still scoreless, Saito gave up a 2-out triple to Kento Kameda (shown below), a ball that just missed being a home run. After hitting first baseman Yuuhei Ishikawa, he got Takuya Hiromoto to ground back to him to end the threat. And that was the story of Saito today: giving up baserunners but always bearing down to get out of the inning, including leaving the bases loaded in the 6th.

Meanwhile, Saito was also doing it with the bat. After singling in the 3rd (pictured below), he scored on a Hiroki Matsunaga double. In the fifth he singled with two out, advancing to third on Hiroki Kojima's single while Kojima moved to second on the throw. This brought Matsunaga back to the plate, and he singled in both runs to give Waseda a 3-0 lead.

In the 7th, however, things fell apart for Saito on the mound. A leadoff single by Hiromoto was followed by a run-scoring double from pinch-hitter Yo Sasaki. Hiroshi Taki followed with an RBI single of his own, and Saito was replaced by Tatsuya Ohishi. Despite all the hype for Saito, the stats show Ohishi to be a better pitcher, at least this season. His ERA is now 0.41 and he's struck out 27 in 22 innings (Saito by comparison has 27 Ks in 29 innings and a 2.79 ERA). Ohishi seems to always relieve Saito, so with these two on the hill, it's no wonder that Waseda wins the majority of their games.

The first batter Ohishi faced sacrificed and then Ryo Imai struck out. It looked like Waseda might escape with the lead, but singles from Masatoshi Matsumoto and Shingo Kamegai brought home the tying run, which was charged to Saito. Kamegai was injured on the play at first and had to be helped off the field. As for Saito, in the 6+ innings he threw, he faced 28 batters, allowing 10 of them to reach. So it wasn't an outstanding performance by him. I noticed though that he was very good at mixing up his pitches and usually had batters guessing. A lot of hits were of the seeing-eye variety, and it was just the one bad inning that cost him the win.

Saito throws

Now tied at 3, Waseda's offense was unable to do anything in the 8th. Hosei's Ishikawa then led off with a double and was quickly sacrificed to third. This was the chance to win the game, but Sasaki grounded out on a great play by first baseman Hironobu Hara, who threw to second baseman Takashi Gotoh covering while managing to keep Ishikawa on third. Taki then flew out to end the threat. The 9th inning was scoreless, and we were heading for extra innings.

In this league, they play no more than 12 innings as they are usually playing 2 games a day. Neither team managed much in the 10th, but in the 11th Waseda had back-to-back singles with 1 out and the top of the order coming up. But Kojima struck out against reliever Kohei Nishi and Matsunaga flew out to center to finish the frame. Neither team mustered much offense the rest of the way and the final was 3-3, played in 3:28. Ohishi finished with 6 innings, giving up 6 hits but no walks and striking out 4. Despite allowing the inherited run to score, that's big-time quality relief and this guy will be very helpful to whichever team drafts him.

This could have been a great game except for all the squandered chances. Ties suck in baseball (no winning and losing pitchers for one) and I was a bit disappointed that Hosei couldn't pull out the comeback or that Waseda couldn't capitalize in their extra innings. Still, these two teams seem to be the class of the league right now, taking 8 out of the last 9 titles between them. This was a critical game and Hosei pulled out all the stops,using 21 players out of their roster of 25 in this game. Waseda only used 12 so I wonder if their bench is not so strong.

With the tie, there is now a game on Monday afternoon. Which I can't go to. Which sucks. Bloody work. It's a critical game in the title chase and Saito should get the start, so if you are in Tokyo and have nothing to do on Monday afternoon, you should head out to Jingu to watch. (BTW, Hosei won 1-0 today, so I'm not sure what happens if Waseda wins tomorrow, do they have a 4th game on Tuesday or some other tiebreaker? Also, Meiji defeated Keio in their Sunday game, so there's two games tomorrow).

Game 2 Meiji 3- Keio 8

Hayata Itoh swings

I was quite tired after that first game and decided to move around the stadium for the second game, which was much less crowded. Keio was standing second in the league at 5-2, with Meiji just a game back at 4-3. But Keio had ace Nobuaki Nakabayashi starting; he was 3rd in the league in ERA with a 4-1 record. I didn't keep score, so can't give details but Meiji started quickly plating 3 runs on 4 hits in their first two innings off Nakabayahi. But Meiji starter Gota Nanba couldn't hold the lead as Keio tied it in their half of the second. Another run in the fourth and then 4 more in the fifth, including 2 on bases-loaded walks, gave Keio a 5-run lead and sent most of the Meiji faithful packing. Nakabayshi did not yield another hit through 6 innings and his bullpen had no trouble keeping Meiji off the board as the game ended 8-3. The final couple of innings were played in a light drizzle, which really cleared out the stadium. Not a memorable game.

Keio's Ryosuke Yamamoto looks bad striking out here

I spent some time here watching the Meiji cheering section and was impressed with their energy. Sadly they were unable to impart some of it to their players, who could not get anything going after the second inning. But it was really Nakabayashi who was the story of the game, going 6 strong innings for the victory. The lanky lefty leads the league with 5 wins and now sports a tidy 2.03 ERA. A Google Search shows that Hanshin and Chiba might be interested in drafting him next week (the draft is to be held on October 29th) so that might be interesting. Wonder if he'll be playing up in Urawa next season.

All smiles early on

Overall thoughts

I would like to see more of these games but it really takes up your whole day. I was in the ballpark from 10-6, which is almost as bad as a work day. Of course, most of the time, the games are much shorter, often coming in just over 2 hours. The quality of ball is very good and the fans are really into it, so it's a fun experience, but can be quite tiring if you stay for both games. It's also interesting to see players who are going to be drafted; there's a chance I'll see them in the minors next year.

In fact, it's much easier to follow players here in Japan, where there's so much baseball in Tokyo and on TV that you can see the same guy in high school, college, the minors, and finally the majors. Contrast that with the States, where a player can crisscross the country as he moves up the minor league chain. David Cooper, the Jays first-round pick in 2008, spent last season in Auburn, NY, Lansing, MI, and Dunedin FL. This year he played for New Hampshire and he'll probably be out in Las Vegas next season. Tough to follow him in person unless you've got a lot of time and money. So if tracking players and watching them develop is your thing, Tokyo might be the best place to be.

A new pet peeve

Finally, one tiny note about some new behavior that drives me nuts. It used to be sliding into first, but that seems to be disappearing. Then it was those fake pickoffs to third and then first. Only saw that twice yesterday. So just when it looked like I could enjoy baseball again without some petty and trivial annoyance, catchers have gotten into the act. The new king of bothersome player actions is: catchers asking umpires to ask the base umps on check swings.

Every time the batter even nudged the bat from this shoulder, the catcher would twirl his hand and point down the line at the base umpire. The plate ump would agreeably ask the base ump to make the call and every single time, it was no swing. I mean these were not close calls. Not one time did I think "Oh yeah, he swung there". I was surprised that the umpire didn't tell the catchers to stop it - I'll call the game, you play the game. I counted at least a dozen times it happened and each time I wondered how the catcher thought it was even close. Memo to catchers everywhere: Just stop it!

Next up

That's probably it for baseball for me this season. There's a combined college and high-school tournament coming up in mid-November which should be entertaining, but also quite chilly, so I'm not sure if I'll go yet. There's also an exhibition game between the under-26 NPB all-stars and the college all-stars, but that's on a long weekend when I hope to be far away from Tokyo.

Next weekend I'll catch some Top League Rugby games and the following week sees two championship soccer games plus a few more Kawasaki Frontale games as they run for the J League title. So stay tuned for reports on those games and other goings on in the sporting world. Until then, enjoy the playoffs!



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