Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Fighters 1 at Marines 5/Marines 3 at Fighters 2 - Minor Major Doubleheader - August 17, 2010

The Nippon Ham Fighters are back in Tokyo this week for a 3-game set against the Chiba Lotte Marines. The teams are locked in a battle for the 3rd and final playoff spot in the Pacific League, with the Marines holding a 2.5 game lead. Orix is also in the running just another game back. It's not quite as exciting as a pennant race, but with the NPB allowing half the teams into the playoffs, it's the best we can get.

Interestingly, both teams' minor-league squads faced off in the afternoon in Lotte Urawa Stadium. So I decided to check that out as well, making it a doubleheader with the same teams, just in different stadiums.

Game 1 - Nippon Ham Fighters 1 at Chiba Lotte Marines 5

Lotte was the home team here and Yuta Ohmine (above) got the start for them. He was the hard-luck loser in the game I saw in the Tokyo Dome last week, giving up just two runs in 6 innings but falling to the Giants 2-1.

Today though, he got some run support as Lotte broke out with 2 runs in the 2nd off Mitsuo Yoshikawa. After Juan Muniz (above on third) walked and Shota Ohmine singled, Katsuya Kakunaka doubled them both home. That's Shota rounding third below.

In the 6th, Makoto Imaoka led off with a double and later scored on a sac fly by catcher Masahiko Tanaka (shown below stretching in the bullpen). Lotte added two more in the 7th on a Kakunaka walk and doubles from Takumi Kohbe and Imaoka.

Meanwhile, Ohmine was pitching a gem. Through 8 innings he had given up just three hits and two walks while throwing 127 pitches. With the Marines holding a 5-run lead, I figured they would take him out as it was a rather stifling 35C (95F) out. But no, he wanted the shutout, so he came in to pitch the ninth. Pinch-hitter Kazuya Murata led off with a double and advanced to third on a groundout. Ohmine then uncorked a wild pitch and the shutout was gone. After walking Kenji Satoh, Ohmine was finally taken out of the game, having tossed a mere 140 pitches. Kodai Matsumoto came in and got pinch-hitter Manabu Iwadate to ground into a double play to end the game.

Fighters 3rd baseman Suguru Ichikawa

This was a critical win for Lotte who are now tied for the lead in the Eastern League with the Giants. I was impressed with Ohmine's stamina given how hot it was. Imaoka (below), who is in his first season with Lotte after 13 campaigns with Hanshin, was the key offensive player with the two doubles. What I found amusing is that he didn't waste any time at the plate, only seeing 6 pitches in his 4 appearances. His two outs were deep flies to center, so he was certainly seeing the ball well.

Overall, an interesting and thankfully quick game that allowed me to get down to the Tokyo Dome in plenty of time for the nightcap.

Game 2 - Chiba Lotte Marines 3 at Nippon Ham Fighters 2

The starters were both foreigners, with Bill Murphy (above) getting the call for Lotte against Bobby Keppel (below) for the Fighters. Murphy spent the last two seasons with the Blue Jays organization but only saw action in 8 big league games before signing a lucrative contract to play in Japan. He was 9-4 with a 3.69 ERA. Keppel was with the Twins last season but decided to seek his fortune over here and it was a wise choice as he is 12-4 so far.

I had high expectations for this game and wasn't disappointed. Murphy started poorly though, giving up two runs in the first, highlighted by a double from Eiichi Koyano. But the Fighters left the bases loaded when catcher Shinya Tsuruoka grounded out.

In the top of the third, Toshiaki Imae grounded a single past diving shortstop Makoto Kaneko, who didn't get up immediately. The Fighters gathered around as the trainer checked him out, and it wasn't good news. Kaneko had to be helped off the field (looks like a torn calf) and was replaced by Yuji Iiyama. What's interesting is that Iiyama had played in the afternoon's game as well, going 0-for-4 before being taken out in the 9th, no doubt so he could make the trip down to the Dome.

Despite the setback, Keppel continued to pitch well, breezing through 4 innings before running into trouble. With two out and runners on first and second, Tadahito Iguchi (who won the World Series with Chicago back in 2005) blooped a ball that fell just inside the right field foul line. It rolled to the fence and both runners came around to score, with Toshiaki Imae taking out Tsuruoka with an aggressive slide. Tsuruoka didn't like that much and must have said something because next thing you know, both dugouts emptied. A bench-clearing brawl! Not really, this is Japan after all. The players merely milled around home plate for a minute before returning without any punches being thrown.

The score remained tied through 7, but in the 8th Iguchi took Keppel's first offering to deep center to give Lotte a 3-2 lead. Keppel finished the inning but the damage was done. In the bottom half, the Fighters Sho Nakata was hit by reliever Shingo Ono with one out. Tsuruoka sacrificed him to second but Iiyama grounded out to end that threat.

In the 9th, closer Hiroyuki Kobayashi came on for Lotte and gave up a leadoff single to Kensuke Tanaka. After another sacrifice, Atsunori Inaba walked. Koyano grounded out to advance both runners and bring Yoshio Itoi to the plate. It was do-or-die time but Itoi couldn't come through, grounding to Iguchi to end the game. Murphy got his 10th win and Kobayashi picked up his 21st save while Keppel dropped to 12-5.

This was a thriller that came down to the last pitch. The story of the game was how many chances Nippon Ham wasted. They left 13 men on base and constantly took themselves out of rallies with sacrifice bunts (5 in total, plus a missed bunt that resulted in a line drive double play). Murphy and the relievers did not pitch particularly well, yielding 15 baserunners, but they were able to escape every jam as the Fighters just gave them outs. I felt like Nippon Ham was playing scared, just trying to get a run here and there when a big rally was what they needed. I am not a fan of the sacrifice to begin with, but using it 5 or 6 times in a game is just silly. That's Itoi below preparing for another one.

With the win, Lotte moved 3.5 games up with two more games in the series. You have to feel for poor Iiyama, he played 15 innings in the two losses, going a combined 1-6 in the process.


It is unfortunate that the NPB changed the rules to allow three teams into the playoffs in each league as there would be two great pennant races now: Hanshin leads Yomiuri by a game in the Central League with Chunichi just 2.5 back; in the PL Seibu leads Softbank by 1.5 games. First place still matters as that team hosts all games in the Climax Series final stage, but it's not as compelling as eliminating the other team during the regular season. Fans of the teams fighting for third might disagree, but I think the long baseball season should reward only the best teams with a playoff spot. Even the wild card in MLB is a bad idea.



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