The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters play most of their home games in Sapporo now, but they have three series in Tokyo this season. I'm not sure why this is, but it is a bit strange that their first home game is not even in their regular home ballpark. But I'm not complaining, it gives me a chance to get to the Tokyo Dome without having to watch a Giants game. Today was the second in a two-game set against the Orix Buffaloes. The defending Pacific League champion Fighters are off to a terrible start at 1-5-1 while Orix, who finished in last place in 2009, is leading the Pacific League at 6-1.
Buddy Carlyle got the start for the Fighters. He's a journeyman who pitched for Hanshin back in 2001-02 and he spent last three seasons with the Atlanta organization, where he won 8 games in 2007. He was opposed by Shogo Yamamoto, whose in his 10th NPB season but only his 3rd as a regular starter. He's a control pitcher who averages just over 2 walks per 9 innings.
Both pitchers were on their game tonight, albeit with completely different styles. Carlyle challenged the Orix hitters, only walking one and scattering 4 hits over his 6 scoreless innings. He was taken out after 6 with a remarkably efficient pitch count of 72. I'm not sure why he was taken out either as it seemed like he could have continued without a problem.
Yamamoto had a tough second inning giving up a run-scoring double to Tomohiro Nioka but he struck out Sho Nakata and induced Shota Ohno into a ground out to leave two runners stranded. He settled down after that but his pitch count was quite high - still he remained in game through 8 innings, ending with 134 pitches but only one walk. But he was in line to be the hard-luck loser as the Buffaloes couldn't get anything off relievers Yoshinori Tateyama and Naoki Miyanishi.
Alex Cabrera watches a towering popup
Orix was down to their last three outs but with the Nippon Ham bullpen struggling this season, it wasn't game over. Closer Hisashi Takeda blew two saves over the weekend and is currently sporting a 20.25 ERA, so in the top of the 9th, newcomer Brian Wolfe trotted out to close the game. Wolfe had spent the last 3 years with the Blue Jays organization and had an ERA under 3 for the first two season, but he struggled in 2009 and now he's in Japan. So far this season he's made three 1-inning appearances without yielding a run, so he was a good candidate for the closer role.
Unfortunately, the role seems to be jinxed. Alex Cabrera lined the first pitch to left for a single, and Greg LaRocca (shown above) followed with a single of his own to bring Takahiro Okada to the plate. For some reason, he likes to be called T-Okada. He was the Buffaloes' first round pick in 2006 but has spent most of his career in the Western League, where he bashed 21 homers last year. Wolfe challenged him and Okada responded, belting the first pitch just over the left field fence for a 3-run shot! Wow. I was sitting near 3rd base and was surrounded by Orix employees who were extremely excited at this sudden development. Wolfe was less than thrilled, but he managed to get the next three hitters in order to send us to the bottom of the ninth with the Fighters down 3-1.
Jon Leicester entered for Orix and after getting one out, gave up a walk and a single. This brought Nioka to the plate, and he got his second RBI of the game with a single to left and it was 3-2. Tomochika Tsuboi pinch-hit and crushed the first pitch to deep center. It looked like the Fighters would win after all but centerfielder Tomotaka Sakaguchi raced back and made a game-saving catch at the wall. Kazuya Murata pinch-hit for the slumping Ohno but he swung on the first pitch and grounded weakly to first. Leicester took the throw covering and the game was over just like that. Wolfe takes the loss and Carlyle gets nothing for his work. But Yamamoto was rewarded for his stamina, getting the comeback win.
This was a strange affair with all the action packed into the last 20 minutes. I enjoyed the different pitching styles on display, but was happy that only 3 walks were given up by both teams. There was also some great defense, including a leaping grab at the hot corner by LaRocca to take a double away from Atsunori Inaba. That's Inaba below on 3rd with LaRocca defending in the 6th inning. Needless to see, Inaba was stranded there.
Tickets to the upper deck were not sold and still there were plenty of empty seats. The Fighters simply don't rate here in Tokyo, which is why they moved to Hokkaido, where their fan base is strong. The next Tokyo Dome series for the Fighters is in July against Softbank.
The Japanese national anthem was played before the game but most fans didn't bother standing. It's not a tradition here so I think most people don't know how to react.
The 2009 Pacific League Pennant was hoisted to the top of the dome along with the team flags as you can see in the picture below.
After the game, my friend Chris and I stopped at a cafe which was showing the Giants game. They were down in Yokohama to take on the Bay Stars. It was 5-5 when we arrived but ex-Fighter Termel Sledge ended things with a 3-run homer in the bottom of the 9th. I found it ironic that the Fighters are struggling and lost on a 3-run shot while one of their best players from last year was winning his game with a 3-run jack just a few miles away.
I'm flying to Singapore tomorrow morning and hoping to catch the Formula 1 Malaysian Grand Prix this weekend. Check back next week for an update.