Friday, June 11, 2010

All-Japan University Baseball Championship - Tokyo Dome, June 10, 2010




This week sees the Japanese equivalent of the College World Series being played in Tokyo. There are 26 teams playing a single-elimination tournament over 6 days. Most of the games are held at Jingu Stadium, but a few of the early round matches are held at the Tokyo Dome, which is just a 15-minute bike ride from my apartment.

There were three games on Thursday, with the first starting at 9:00. But I had to watch game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, so planned on catching the second and third games. Of course, the hockey game went to overtime, but fortunately Patrick Kane scored the Cup winning goal fairly quickly and I was able to get to the ballpark in time for most of the second game.

Tickets were 1,200 yen and you could sit anywhere. There was a surprisingly large crowd on hand but still plenty of seats to choose from. I always enjoy being in a huge stadium with a sparse crowd; it's not a feeling you can get that often.

Game 2 - Toyo University 3 Hakodate University 2

The first game went long, so I only missed a couple of innings of the second game, which featured Toyo and Hakodate. Toyo are the champs of the Tohto League, which is one of Tokyo's lesser known federations. Hakodate won the Hokkaido League which consists of 15 schools based on the northernmost island of Japan. They've had one player drafted in their history, Ryo Sakata who toils for the Seibu Lions minor league team.


When I arrived, Toyo was up 1-0, but Yuki Kobayashi of Hakodate (above) reversed that with a 2-run home run to deep right in the 5th. Hakodate's starter was Shotaro Sato, and he was cruising until the 6th, when he was visibly tiring (turns out he pitched the day before). A bases-loaded single by Yuki Uehara tied the game, and then Atsushi Kimura walked as Toyo regained their 1-run lead.


Hakodate had a great chance to tie the game in the 7th. Kobayashi led off with a fly ball to right that the outfielder lost in the dome's white roof. It bounced in for a 3-base error (that's him arriving at 3rd above). I must say that it is difficult picking up the ball on a sunny day in the dome and it would be unfortunate if a team's season was ruined because they are not used to playing in such conditions.

Anyway, after a walk put men on the corners with nobody out, Toyo brought the infield in and were rewarded with a grounder to second. Kobayashi was off on contact and he was out by a mile. The next batter grounded into an inning-ending double play and the Hakodate threat was done.

Toyo had a chance to add to their lead in their half of the 7th with the bases loaded and nobody out, but after a groundout resulted in a force at home, another good defensive play saw a potential sacrifice fly turn into another out at the plate (below).

Relay above and collision below

Hakodate had a chance to tie in the 9th with a 1-out double, but it was squandered as well and Toyo advanced to the quarter-finals with a 3-2 victory. The teams met at home plate and the captains shook hands in a ritual that adds some sportsmanship to the game.


This game was quite interesting and well-played, and could have gone either way. There wasn't the intensity I expected from such an important game, but this could be due to playing in a stadium that is too big, or to the umpire rushing things along as there was another game to come after that.

Game 3 - Soka University 8 Nara Sangyo University 1 (called after 8)

Soka is based in western Tokyo while Nara Sangyo comes from Nara prefecture near Kyoto. I liked the fact that both teams had colourful uniforms as you can see in the photo below. Soka is in the blue and yellow while Nara wears grey with red trim.


I won't bother recapping the game as it was not close. But there were three memorable plays here. Down 3-0 in the 4th, Nara changed pitchers with runners on second and third. The new pitcher promptly uncorked two wild pitches, including one that sailed to the backstop, and both runners scored to make it 5-0. A little case of the nerves I guess, but that pretty much ended Nara's night.


I was sitting above Nara's dugout and you could tell the players knew they were not going to sneak out a victory. Soka's starter Yasuhiro Ogawa (who pitched two complete games in the 2008 Spring high school tournament) had a 1-hitter through 5 innings and didn't look like he was tiring. In the 6th though, Shota Morimoto launched one to left field to score a run for Nara. That's him connecting above and then scoring below; it was good that they didn't get shutout and the players and the few Nara fans around me enjoyed a muted celebration.


That was to be their only run though as Soka added 2 more to make the final 8-1, which was called after 8 innings on the mercy rule. Ogawa ended up with the 2-hitter complete game, but I actually left after 6 as it had gotten late and I had other places to be. So it was two incomplete games for me that day.

Update (June 13th): Toyo defeated Soka in their quarterfinal match and went on to win the championship. It was their 2nd title in 3 years and I think I will stop referring to the Tohto League as 2nd-tier. The Tokyo Big 6 League gets all the press but the other leagues are just as deserving.

Temporary Souvenir

The third memorable play from the second game was me catching a foul ball. The batter checked his swing and the foul ball just cleared the netting, going over my head. I turned to see it hit and bounce back directly towards me. I reached up and caught it on the fly, earning comments of admiration from the crowd (yeah, right). Sadly, I knew I would not be able to keep my souvenir. In college games, baseballs are at a premium and you have to return any that are hit into the stands. I briefly debated making a run for it but it was only in the 2nd inning, so I decided to stay and give the ball back. If it was in the 6th inning, I might have tried the old dumb foreigner trick and snuck out without returning the ball but didn't get a chance to test the theory.

Thoughts

Overall, it was worth getting out to watch this tournament but I am not a fan of the format. There are 25 games over 6 days and teams may have to play on five consecutive days. Seems like some teams only have one reliable starter (the "ace") who is forced to pitch on back-to-back days. This is not good for the kid's arm but as he is young, he can heal quickly. However, I think there is long-term damage being done and it catches up to him later in their career. There is neither the time or facilities to spread out the tournament, but I wonder how much the overwork hurts these guys in the long run.

Next Up

The World Cup begins today and to celebrate, I'll go watch a J2 soccer game tomorrow afternoon in Komazawa. Check back Sunday for a post on that.

Best,

Sean

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