Monday, May 31, 2010

Keio 6 vs Waseda 4 - Tokyo Big 6 University Championship - May 31, 2010




This past weekend saw the final games of the spring semester of Tokyo's Big 6 University League. As is tradition, these games featured Keio and Waseda, two of Japan's most prestigious universities, who have fought a fierce baseball rivalry since 1903. Known as Soukeisen (combining the alternate reading for the Wa character in Waseda (Sou), the Kei from Keio, and Sen which means battle), this weekend's games had some additional intrigue: the winner would also take home the championship.

If you remember last fall when I saw a couple of games, I wrote that each team plays a best-of-3 series against each other team over an 8-week period. The winner of the most series is the champion. This season, both Keio and Waseda had won 3 of their first 4 series while the other schools had completed their schedule with no more than 3 wins. So the winner of the Soukeisen set would be the league champion for Spring 2010.

Saturday's game saw Keio win 2-1 but Waseda responded with a 4-2 victory on Sunday. This meant that they would need a game on Monday to determine the champion. With nothing else to do and the weather warm and clear, I headed down to Jingu for the afternoon affair.

The Game

The weekend games were pretty much sold out so I expected a large crowd despite it being a Monday. I got there an hour before game time and was able to get a seat in the first row of the second deck, which is nicely shaded and offers a good view of the field (below).


The starters were the same two who pitched on Saturday: Yuki Saitoh for Waseda and Daisuke Takeuchi for Keio. Rubber arms are often required for team aces as most squads only have two starters, and there's the occasional 3-game series as today. Although Saitoh started strongly, he lost his control in the 2nd inning. After Hayata Itoh led off with a single and was sacrificed to second, Kazuma Takeuchi lined a Saitoh offering to the right field fence to score Itoh with the first run of the game. But Takeuchi was thrown out trying for what seemed like the easy double; the ball was hit so hard that rightfielder Shohei Habu was able to throw a rocket to get Takeuchi at second.

With two out and the bases empty, it seemed like the threat was over, but Saitoh proceeded to walk the next two hitters to bring up the pitcher Takeuchi. A wild pitch moved the runners to second and third, and then with the count 3-0, Saitoh unleashed another wild one that allowed one run to score. But Masahiro Nagasaki, running from second, thought he could score as well. He was quite wrong in that assessment and Waseda's catcher Shota Sugiyama tossed the ball to Saitoh who chased Nagasaki for the third out. Bad baserunning by Keio limited them to just two runs.


Saitoh (above) struggled in the third inning, giving up two singles but escaping unscathed. Nonetheless was pulled for a pinch hitter when Waseda batted in the bottom half. He was clearly tired and couldn't hit his spots, throwing 52 pitches but only 27 for strikes.

Yuya Fukui replaced Saitoh and promptly gave up a lead-off triple to Kazuma Takeuchi. Ren Yamasaki then came up and I thought he telegraphed the squeeze play as he subconsciously gripped the bat in a bunting style while digging in. Perhaps Waseda thought this too as Fukui threw outside,Takeuchi broke for home, and Yamasaki missed the pitch. Takeuchi was out in the good old 2-5-1-6 rundown. Another mental error for Keio and I wondered if Waseda would make them pay.

In the 5th, Naoki Yamaguchi hit a 2-run shot off Fukui to make it 4-0, but Waseda got those runs back on a 2-run single by Hiroki Matsunaga in the bottom half, which was Takeuchi's last inning.

In the top of the 6th, Waseda brought in Tatsuya Ohishi to pitch. He's normally very strong, but he gave up a two out single and walk that brought pinch-hitter Ryuta Iba to the plate. Iba singled to center and it looked like we would have a play at the plate, but centerfielder Kouki Sasaki let the ball get under his glove and both runners scored for a 6-2 Keio lead.


Kouji Fukutani (above) took over the mound duties and pitched well, but had some big help from his defense. In the 7th, with two out and runners on first and second, Habu belted one to center (below) that Itoh misjudged initially and then had to run back on to make the catch. It was a game-saving play no doubt.


In the 8th, Waseda's Koji Udaka belted a 2-run homer to make it interesting, but that was all that Fukutani would allow in 3 2/3 innings of relief. He was replaced by Hironori Tanaka who induced Sugiyama to ground out to end the game (below) and give Keio the championship with the 6-4 win.


It was Keio's first pennant in 11 seasons (there are two seasons per year, one in the spring and one in the fall) and the players celebrated with a quick piling on before decorum was restored in time for the post-game interviews.

Closing Ceremony

Every sporting event of this nature in Japan finishes with a formal closing ceremony. First the umpires, administrators, and managers walk out. Then the players all march, team by team, in order of finish as a small band plays. That's Keio below marching out as the managers of each team watch.


Somebody gives a speech, the championship team gets a a few trophies, and the top batter and pitcher are given awards. The national anthem is played and then everybody marches off. It's really pretty neat and a good way to end the tournament in style.

Keio's captain Tatsushi Yumoto accepts the championship cup


Notes

All innings that had runs had exactly 2 runs. Also, each pitcher that gave up a run gave up exactly 2 runs (although 1 of Ohishi's was unearned).

Attendance was 26,000. I don't know why the minor leagues here fail to draw serious numbers during their weekday games. I guess that most people are not true sports fans, just fans of a team or group. College ball appeals to those who went to those particular schools, but they are not baseball fans as a whole and would therefore not have interest in a minor league game in the suburbs of Tokyo.

UCLA beat Waseda back in March. I missed this entirely, but it would have been interesting to watch.

Last year I saw 4 university games and mentioned a few players, thinking that they might be drafted. They weren't. But just following up on a couple, they are now in the industrial leagues. Ken Togame, who I noted in this post on the Tohto League, is now pitching for JR East, while Nobuaki Nakabayashi from Keio is with JFE Steel. They might still make the big leagues here as these industrial teams sometimes act as a bridge for players who aren't quite good enough to be drafted straight out of school.

With the industrial league tournaments getting started, I'll try to find out how these teams do and if these guys are performing well. But in general, it's quite tough to follow these leagues as they don't have a good website. In the States, minor league baseball keeps tabs on every player in affiliated ball on their website, but here in Japan, there's no organization like that. Really, there's just not enough baseball played here; Keio won this tournament with a 9-4 record. Thirteen league games over 8 weeks is not enough game action; I know they play other exhibition matches but an NCAA team would have somewhere between 24 and 32 games during that period.

Anyway, that's it for now. Check back for some industrial league posts in the next week or so.

Best,

Sean

Sunday, May 30, 2010

July trip to Minnesota and Iowa set!


I'm back in Japan and already itching to return to the States for more baseball. Fortunately, the Minnesota Twins have opened a new stadium this season and I am compelled to make a pilgrimage. I've chosen a weekend series against the White Sox from July 16-18 which turns out to be a nice coincidence as fellow sports road trippers Gary Herman and Mike "The King" Casiano from New York and Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell from Buffalo will be there.

Gary maintains his own blog called Royalty Tours which details his adventures, and he has a lot of them. Both he and the King see around 400 sporting events a year while holding full-time jobs. I met them back in 2003 and have seen games with them nearly every year since then.

Andrew and Peter completed the Ultimate Sports Road Trip (all 121 venues in the big 4 sports) back in 2002 and continue to catch each new stadium when it opens. They are also sportswriters for a local newspaper and keep a blog about their travels and other sports issues. I first encountered them in 2001 and we have met on occasion when I visit New York or Ontario, but this will be our first meeting on the road. It will also be the first time the five of us attend a game together and I am very much looking forward to it.

Qantas miles to Chicago

As usual, planning the trip has been a lot of fun and seen a lot of changes. I originally had a 3-week journey that started in Minneapolis and finished with the Blue Jays in Kansas City, along with 10 days watching the minor leagues in Iowa. But I had to shorten this jaunt after my unexpected trip to LA last month, so I cut it down to two weeks. The White Sox-Twins and Jays-Royals series were a must, so the next step was to figure out which other games to see. I still wanted to check out the 5 minor league parks in Iowa and all those teams are home in the week beginning July 10th. As well, the Iowa Cubs would be home on July 22nd with Casey Blake bobblehead night, so that made a good stop on the way back from KC.

So I thought I had the trip set. But then I received an e-mail from the friendly folks at Qantas. Turns out that my frequent flyer miles are expiring at the end of June. When I was working, I had several business trips to Australia and had accumulated a good number of miles. But having stopped working two years ago, I hadn't had the chance to earn any more miles. Without any activity for 3 years, the existing miles expire.

Since I don't have enough miles to fly internationally, I first tried finding domestic flights in Japan, but there didn't seem to be a way to do that. I then realized that I could probably book a flight between Minneapolis and somewhere in the US during the July trip and add a couple of games. After much searching of baseball schedules and available flights, I determined that Chicago was the best bet. Even better, it was cheaper to fly from Tokyo to Chicago rather than Minneapolis, so I would save a few bucks in the process.

I'll arrive in Chicago on July 9th, a bit too late to catch the White Sox game and then fly to Minneapolis the next morning. From there, I'll drive down to Des Moines to watch the evening game between New Orleans and the Iowa Cubs. The next day is the World Cup Final, but that should be over in time for a game in Davenport, where the Quad Cities River Bandits play. The next few days will be spent watching more Midwest League games in Iowa before I return to Minneapolis for the weekend. In Kansas City, I found an independent league team which has a night game the same day the Jays and Royals play an afternoon affair. And when I fly back to Chicago, I'll see a Cardinals-Cubs matchup in Wrigley and then drive up to Milwaukee for the Nationals and Brewers on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon before driving back to Chicago and flying home on Monday.

The full schedule is as follows:
Jul 10 New Orleans Zephyrs at Iowa Cubs 7:05 (PCL)
Jul 11 Beloit Snappers at Quad City River Bandits 5:00 (MWL)
Jul 12 Peoria Chiefs at Cedar Rapids Kernels 12:05 (MWL)
Jul 12 Beloit Snappers at Quad City River Bandits 7:00 (MWL)
Jul 14 Bowling Green Hot Rods at Burlington Bees 6:30 (MWL)
Jul 15 West Michigan Whitecaps at Clinton LumberKings 7:00 (MWL)
Jul 16 Chicago White Sox at Minnesota Twins 7:10
Jul 17 Chicago White Sox at Minnesota Twins 6:10
Jul 18 Chicago White Sox at Minnesota Twins 1:10
Jul 19 Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals 7:10
Jul 20 Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals 7:10
Jul 21 Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals 1:10
Jul 21 Schaumburg Flyers at Kansas City T-Bones 7:00 (Northern League)
Jul 22 Oklahoma City Redhawks at Iowa Cubs 7:05 (PCL)
Jul 24 St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs 12:05
Jul 24 Washington Nationals at Milwaukee Brewers 6:10
Jul 25 Washington Nationals at Milwaukee Brewers 1:10
Seventeen games in 16 days! Should be a blast.

Quiet Time

Between now and then though, there won't be much going on here. The World Cup starts in just 12 days and that will take up most evenings for the month of June. The J League also halts its season while the tournament is held, so there won't be any soccer here. A third of the Japanese baseball season has been completed and both leagues have neatly separated into 3 good teams and 3 bad ones. Since 3 teams make the playoffs in each league, this year is even duller than usual, so I won't be seeing any games in Tokyo for now. That leaves minor league baseball, and I'll try to catch a few games as the weather should be nice.

There's also the industrial league tournaments which are taking place around the area. Last year I saw the championship game between Toyota and Honda. It was like baseball on speed and I want to see some of the regional games too. Each prefecture has its own tournament; Kanagawa (where Yokohama is) has games this week and next, while Tokyo has tournaments in early and late June. These are often day games, so I'll probably watch a few of them just to see what it is like. It'll be a relatively quiet month after the recent trips, but check back regularly, I'm sure to be watching something!

Best,

Sean

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Hamamatsu wins the bj League


While I was on my recent trip, the bj League held its playoffs over a two-week period. The quarterfinals took place on the weekend of May 15th with the top team in each conference hosting the 4th-place finisher while the 2-seed welcomed the third-place team for a two-game series.

What is interesting about this format is that if the teams split these two games, a 10-minute "mini-game" is held to determine which team advances. In three cases, this wasn't required as the home team won both games. The Tokyo Apache, who finished fourth, were summarily dismissed by the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix while Ryukyu and Osaka won in the West. Only Sendai did not manage the sweep, splitting with Niigata, who went on to win the mini-game and send the 89ers home early.

I'd just like to say what a stupid system. This league plays 52 games and allows a team to be eliminated based on one quarter of play? How about a best-of-three, with the first game on Friday night? Bah, it doesn't really matter, but the Sendai fans got ripped off with this system, which renders the regular season almost pointless. Then again, so do most playoff schemes if you think about it.

Anyway, the Final Four took place in Tokyo on May 22nd and 23rd with one-game championships in each conference and then a consolation game and final on Sunday. Sadly, none of the games were competitive, so I didn't regret missing it. In the East, Hamamatsu beat Niigata by 27 while white-hot Osaka (who finished 16-2 to finish first in the West) beat Ryukyu by 19 points.

This set up a final between the top team in each conference, but it was not even close. Hamamatsu won 84-56 to take their first league title with a combined 45-11 record. The good news is that over 8,500 fans saw the game, so perhaps the league can continue to expand in the years to come. I'll still try to see some games in other locations and will keep you all posted as usual.

Best,

Sean

Friday, May 28, 2010

Final Playoff Thoughts


Both the NBA and NHL seasons are nearing completion. Yet again the mindless media talks incessantly about the NBA, which saw 3 sweeps in their conference semi-finals and what looked to be a couple of boring semi-final series before Phoenix won the last two over the Lakers and Orlando found a heart. Still, a rather dull playoffs overall but the American media yaks on and on about LeBron and he's not even playing!

The NHL, on the other hand, has put on a great show to almost no fanfare. Philadelphia's comeback over Boston, Halak's performance in the first two rounds to knock off Washington and Pittsburgh, and the young Hawks reaching their potential are just some of the compelling stories.

In the NHL, it was interesting that the East and West were polar opposites in each round: there were 3 upsets in the East in round 1 but only one in the West (an upset is when the lower seeded team advances and yes, I am counting Detroit over Phoenix as one), then two more upsets in the East semis while the West favourites advanced. If the trend continued, either a Chicago-Philly or Montreal-San Jose final would result and we got the former. Should be a good series as neither team has won for a few decades, so at least one long-suffering fan base will be rewarded. If Chicago wins, then Toronto will be the team to have gone longest without a Cup. Lovely. (It happened.)

When the season ended, I wrote a post detailing how the Bruins, Flyers, and Habs were not deserving playoff teams. Naturally, all 3 teams won their first-round series and the Flyers are in the finals. I still feel that 16 teams out of 30 in the playoffs is too many, but clearly those teams deserved their berth. I stand corrected.

Another intriguing note that I've not seen anywhere else is how the first round of the playoffs actually followed the regular season series in all 8 cases. Simply put, the team that won the regular-season series won the playoff series. If the teams split the season series, then OT wins should be discounted and SO wins even further as they don't happen in the playoffs. For example, Montreal and Washington split their 4 regular season games. But one of Washington's wins was in a shootout while Montreal had one overtime win. Therefore Montreal "won" the season series and went on to win the playoff series as well.

If the teams split the regular season and there were no OT or SO wins, then the team with home advantage would be expected to win. This only applied to Pittsburgh over Ottawa, and the Penguins won that. In the other six series, the team who had a better head-to-head record in the regular season won the series. A great betting tip for next season perhaps?

For completeness, the next round did not see this trend continue as only Chicago's win over Vancouver would have been predicted using this method. The semi-finals though did see both "expected" winners emerge. So out of 14 series, 11 could have been correctly predicted using this formula.

For those of you who wish to bet on the finals, Philadelphia defeated the Blackhawks in their only meeting on March 13th, 3-2 in Philly, when Chris Pronger scored with 2.1 seconds left. It marked the 8th straight loss for Chicago in Philadelphia, so based solely on this little tidbit, I'll wager that Philly will upset Chicago and bring Lord Stanley back to Broad Street. (Well, they didn't).

If the NHL final goes 7 games, it will finish on June 11th. That's the first day of the World Cup! When that ends on July 11th, NHL teams should be opening training camp for the 2010-11 season. Well, not really, but it won't be that far off. It sure is tiring being a sports fan!

Best,

Sean

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Looking Around Los Angeles




I like to post a little about each city that I visit. Perhaps an attraction that might not get much notice, or an area of town that is worth a visit. Everyone knows about Disneyland and Universal Studios in LA, but many people spend their entire time in LA outside of the downtown area, which has a few things that might be intriguing.

Japanese American National Museum

There is an area in downtown LA known as Little Tokyo which is historically where Japanese Americans lived in the early part of the 20th century. There are lots of Japanese restaurants stores, and temples in the neighbourhood, but the prime attraction is the Japanese American National Museum on First Street, just south of Union Station. Opened in 1992, the museum contains a detailed history of the Japanese American experience. It's not a long history as Japanese immigrants didn't start arriving until the 1880's, and much of the display is dedicated to the internment that affected the Japanese population in 1942, one of the United States' most embarrassing acts. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, all Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in relocation camps for over two years until the Supreme Court ruled against the government. Because there are so many personal artifacts, the displays on this period are quite interesting and powerful.

There are some displays on baseball, and a great picture of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig who played a Japanese American team during a barnstorming tour. Another interesting topic was how Arizona had the most drastic anti-Japanese law on the books in 1935. Just 75 years later and now the boogeymen are Mexicans. The more things change...

The museum also has changing exhibitions which are detailed on their website. For anyone who has lived in Japan, this is a good place to see how those who left here over 100 years ago dealt with the problems of assimilating in the USA.

Next door to the museum is the Geffen Contemporary Museum of Art, but it was closed when I was there. Across the courtyard from the museum is the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, which is pictured below.


Downtown

Downtown LA is not known for its tourist-friendly attractions, but rather as a place to be avoided. Historically this may have been true, but recent redevelopments make it worth your while to walk around if you have time before a game at Staples Center. City Hall (pictured at the top of the post) is here, as is Angels Flight, a small funicular railway that has just reopened in March after a 9-year hiatus due to a fatal accident.


As you walk southwest from Union Station to the Staples Center, you will pass through several neighbourhoods, including Little Tokyo, Civic Center, Bunker Hill, and South Park. Each has its own history and distinct feeling. There are some parks such as Pershing Square, and unique museums such as one dedicated to Neon Art.

Just to the northwest of Union Station are the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument and Chinatown.

There is really a lot to see here, so take your time to do some research and try to catch some of the lesser-known sights. You'll avoid the crowds who are all in Hollywood and maybe learn something as well.

Miracle Mile

The Miracle Mile refers to Wilshire Boulevard between Fairfax and LaBrea Avenues in western LA. From a roadtrippers perspective, this is an historic area as it is where the first dedicated left-turn lanes were introduced as well as timed traffic lights and parking lots for shops. All of these innovations were the brainchild of developer A.W. Ross who wanted to create a commericial area to rival downtown. He succeeded in a manner that was unimaginable, hence the area was named "Miracle Mile" and the model became the de facto standard for commercial districts across the country.

If you are going out to UCLA to catch a game, you can try the slow route along Wilshire. Museum Row is located here as well. The LaBrea Tar Pits (shown below) and Page Museum, LACMA, and the Petersen Automotive Museum are all within a few minutes of each other and you can easily spend a day going between them.


I did spend an afternoon at LACMA and was particularly impressed with their Japanese pavilion. It contains a number of screens and prints from all periods of Japanese history. My favourite display was the coloured woodblock prints by Utagawa Hiroshige, one of which showed the area in which I now live. It's amazing how much things have changed here in the intervening 150 years, especially after visiting London which has many of the same buildings from 500 years ago.

LACMA is not cheap, with parking and admission totaling $19, but it is "Pay What You Wish" after 5 pm. It's a huge complex and an art fan can spend hours here browsing a wide variety of works.

In-N-Out by LAX

OK, enough culture, let's talk about food! Before flying out of LAX, I make it a rule to have a Double Double at the In-N-Out on Sepulveda Blvd just north of the airport. It is the most famous location of the venerable chain as it is right next to one of the runways, so there are planes landing every couple of minutes. As I sat down to eat my burger yesterday, SQ12 from Tokyo arrived - this would be the same plane I would take back home a few hours later. The burger as always was superb but I was rather hungry so I finished it before I remembered to take a picture. Below is the iconic sign as a US Airways plane lands behind.


I can hardly wait to get back there.

Best,

Sean

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Toronto Blue Jays 6 at Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim 0 - May 25, 2010



After a busy sports Sunday in Phoenix, I woke early Monday morning and spent 6 hours along I--10 driving to Anaheim. It was a good drive with no traffic jams and I arrived around noon, in plenty of time to see the Jays taking on the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the first of a 3-game set.

Getting Tickets

I arrived quite early at the ballpark and approached a ticket window. I noticed that the lady had a sign indicating that she spoke Japanese. With Hideki Matsui joining the Angels in the off-season, the Angels could expect an influx of Japanese tourists, so I asked her if she was hired for her Japanese ability. She laughed and acknowledged that may have been an important reason, then asked me if I could speak. I said that I live in Japan and so we started conversing in Japanese, which was a bit odd. A Japanese film crew started filming the transaction, so if you see a show with a short guy with bad hair and worse Japanese buying tickets in Anaheim, it just might be me.

I have to say that there are too many ticket options. The first row in many field-level sections is slightly more expensive than the rest of the seats in the section, and overall I counted 31 choices. Tickets are not cheap here either, with the lower level seats between the bases priced at $85. I ended up in section 221 and was happy with that seat because it wasn't blocked by people coming and going during the action (other than the morons in front of me who spent half the game getting up and down to buy beer).

I'd say you are better off waiting outside and seeing if someone has extra tickets as season tickets are cheaper and you can probably save money that way. I wanted to get in and walk around though, so I bought my ticket and went in.

Angel Stadium of Anaheim

What is it with all the "of Anaheim" things going on here. First the team changed their named from the Anaheim Angels to LA Angels of Anaheim, and the stadium followed suit when Edison International exited their naming rights agreement in 2003. But locals refer to the ballpark as "The Big A" and nobody actually uses the "of Anaheim" part of either the team or stadium name.

Opened in 1966, the stadium is the 4th oldest in the majors. It hosted the LA Rams of the NFL from 1981-95 but after they moved to St. Louis and Disney took over the team, the stadium underwent a significant renovation period that finished in 1998. The most noticeable changes were a terraced bullpen (below) in left field, and the "California Spectacular" in center, in which a stream courses down artificial rocks surrounded by real trees.


The stadium is located across the street from the Honda Center, with $8 parking off Katella Avenue to the North or Orangewood Avenue to the south. You will notice the Big A scoreboard pictured below as you drive by on the 57 freeway.


When you enter, there is a display commemorating the Angels' World Championship season of 2002, including the trophy below.


There are three decks, but the middle deck is a club level which requires ticketed access. The first deck is divided into two levels: field level (100) and terrace level (200) but there is just a walkway between them. The 200 level seats are cheaper and might offer better value as they are covered and there are TV's where you can watch the replay.

From section 540

There are two scoreboards, one in left field above the bullpens, the other in right. They were showing the Boston-Tampa Bay game while batting practice was on, which is something I always appreciate.

Angel Stadium was my favourite for food options back in 2001 and still offers a good variety. Panda Express is quite popular as you can get decent Chinese fast food for a reasonable price, while the Katella Grill offers a California Chicken Cheese Steak that I found quite tasty. This restaurant has a branch nearby at Main at Katella and if you have a game ticket you can enjoy a 2-for-1 offer before or after the game. There's also a Ruby's diner that offers milkshakes. For those of you with a real thirst, I noticed an all-you-can-drink soda option for only $11.25. Yikes.

The other thing I like about the ballpark is that the staff is quite friendly. They have instituted a rule though that prevents you from going into the first level above the dugout without a ticket, but the ushers are very kind in enforcing it.

Behind the California Spectacular

It's been a long time since I've seen a stadium with old style ramps that you switch back on to get to the upper deck. Of course, there are escalators and stairs, but it was a bit of nostalgia as I hiked up to the top.

Overall, Angel Stadium is an excellent place to see a game but it can be expensive. Still, for me it's a bit of a look back to the stadiums I grew up with. I hope it stays as is for a long time to come.

The Game


Joe Saunders started for LA against fellow lefty Brett Cecil (above). Fred Lewis led off the game with a triple to right and scored on a sacrifice fly by Adam Lind. The Jays had the lead and Cecil was sharp, giving up only a single to Jeff Frandsen through 3 innings. Torii Hunter was called out on this check swing below.


In the fourth, Alex Gonzalez singled for Toronto and after Jose Bautista drew his first of 3 walks on the evening, John Buck singled home Gonzalez to double the lead. Cecil kept dealing though, keeping the Angels' hitters off-balance, giving up a walk in the 5th but nothing else.


Edwin Encarnacion grounds to third

The Jays broke the game open in the 7th, scoring 4 runs, highlighted by an Adam Lind double. The last run was unearned as shortstop Erick Aybar muffed a line drive with the bases loaded. That's Encarnacion scoring on Lind's double as Aaron Hill gets back to third.


Cecil finally tired in the 8th, giving up a single to Matsui (shown below) and walking Mike Napoli. Jason Frasor came in to get the next two outs and preserve Cecil's scoreless game, and Scott Downs pitched the 9th as the Jays won easily 6-0. Great way to end the trip!


The game took 2:53 due to all the walks (8 by the Angels, 2 by Toronto) but the story was Cecil's pitching. 7 1/3 innings and only 4 baserunners with only one of them reaching third base. When the game started, LA were the only team to have not been shutout this season, but that is no longer the case.


It was a great game for me, and nice to see Toronto work the count for a change. They are an aggressive team at the plate, but Saunders struggled with his control and the Jays were able to capitalize. They had only 6 hits themselves, but those 8 walks helped out. Here's hoping that those two losses in Arizona were the anomaly and Toronto can be in the race this season.

Notes

As I walked to the front of the stadium to take the picture at the top of the page, I noticed a few bees buzzing around. Strange I thought, why would bees be here. Well, I turned around and was surprised to see that a whole swarm had congregated on some poor fellow's car. I guess there was something tasty for them there, but I didn't stick around to investigate.


While I was enjoying my pre-game meal, they were playing the radio broadcast which included a brief interview with Jays' manager Cito Gaston. He talked about the unfair aspect of having pitchers hit in NL parks during interleague play and suggested that the DH be used in all interleague games. Not a bad idea actually, although the Jays' pitchers did manage a couple of hits in the series. But there have been some high-profile injuries in recent years, so perhaps it's worth a look to see if using the DH makes sense. At the least, NL fans would see some AL-type games.

Gaston also spoke about Toronto's future. This is his last season as manager but he felt like the Jays have a lot of good young talent and he was looking forward to seeing how things develop. It certainly made me optimistic listening to him speak, so who knows, maybe Toronto can contend sooner than we expect.

In the 8th, Frandsen was at the plate when Frasor's pitch was a bit wild and went behind Frandsen's head. But the ball hit his bat and bounced back in front of him, rolling just foul. It was kind of amusing to see and even Frandsen was smiling, but he wouldn't have been so happy if it was a fair ball as he would have been thrown out.

Trip is over

Well, the 1-month jaunt to California, Arizona, and England has come to a close. Back to Japan now where I'll take it easy before the final trip of the year to Minnesota to see the new Target Field. I also plan to see the Jays in Kansas City and a few days in Iowa to check out their minor league teams. I'll post the final schedule shortly, so check back in a while for that and some other thoughts on LA, the playoffs, and other updates.

Best,

Sean

Los Angeles Lakers 109 at Phoenix Suns 118 - NBA Western Conference Finals Game 3 - May 23, 2010



Jump ball

When the Phoenix Suns defeated San Antonio in round 2 of the NBA playoffs, I knew that they would be playing sometime around the time I would be visiting the city. But the NBA initially scheduled only the first two games that were to be played in LA. I worried that they might set games 3 and 4 in conflict with the Jays games that I was planning to see, but NBA commish David Stern is a regular reader I guess as he kindly set game 3 for Sunday evening at 5:30, about an hour after the Jays game would probably end. So after Toronto hammered Arizona 12-4, I walked over to the US Airways Center to see if there were tickets available.

Tickets

My friend Sharpy had purchased a single from a scalper that morning but I wanted to wait until closer to game time for a couple of reasons. First, if the baseball game went long, I didn't want to leave early, and secondly, I wanted to check the box office so I could avoid a trip to the ATM. It's just a couple of minutes from Chase Field to US Airways Center, and the ticket windows were surprisingly empty. After being searched, I made my way to the Advance Ticket Window, where there was nobody waiting. I asked if they were selling for tonight's game and was happy to hear that there was a single in 4th row of the upper deck in a corner. Not the best seat but as it turned out, not that bad at all, especially for a last minute purchase.

US Airways Center

It was a drastic sensory change leaving the red and black clad fans of the Diamondbacks and walking a couple of blocks to where the Suns fans in their bright orange colours waited outside the outside of the arena, with liberal sprinklings of Laker fans sporting their trademark purple and gold. Upon entering the seating bowl, we were subject to an even more colourful display as every seat was covered with an orange T-shirt, courtesy of a local grocery store.


Yeah, free T-shirts! The Suns' playoff theme is "WE R ORNG" as it would be texted, so everybody had to wear the shirts. Of course, Laker fans were happy to throw their shirts away, so some fans got two or three shirts. Christmas presents for the family!

Anyway, I didn't have much time to wander around but can say that the upper concourse is far too narrow for a sold-out game. It took about 10 minutes during halftime to make the walk around and the lineups for the concessions and facilities were quite long. I'd recommend purchasing your food before the game.

The good thing is that the upper deck is actually quite close to the floor. The arena, opened in 1992, was designed for basketball and the suite level is quite small, so the upper bowl seats are good value. With only 14 rows up here, even the nosebleeds are more than acceptable.

There was an out-of-town scoreboard that showed the MLB and WNBA scores, but neglected to tell us the Chicago-San Jose result in the NHL. This doesn't bode well for the future of the Coyotes, who once called this arena home. But it is really much better for basketball, the design fits the smaller hardcourt properly, unlike a typical hockey arena where the corner and end seats are just too far away from the action.

The Game

The Lakers had won the first two games of the series, so this was a must-win for Phoenix. Both teams came out on offense but Phoenix was driving to the basket and drawing fouls while LA was kept to the outside by the Suns' defense. At one point the Suns were 18/20 from the free throw line while LA was 0/1 and both Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom were in foul trouble. But the Lakers were making most of their shots while the Suns missed some easy ones. At the end of the first, the Lakers led 32-29 with Kobe Bryant netting 15 points.

Bryant grabs a rebound

In the second though, Phoenix went to a zone defense and LA couldn't adapt. The last five minutes saw the Suns go on a 15-2 run to lead 54-47 at the half.


Steve Nash looks to pass

The third quarter saw the Suns' Amar'e Stoudamire explode for 20 points but the Lakers were solid shooters and actually won the quarter by 5 points to head to the final stanza down 86-84.

Pau Gasol shoots over Stoudamire while Derek Fisher tries a three below


The fourth quarter was back-and-forth for the first few minutes and with 7:35 to go, the Suns held a 93-92 lead. But after Stoudamire drained two free throws, Ron Artest made a bad pass and the Suns quickly broke down the floor. Steve Nash found Jason Richardson in the corner and Richardson sank a 3 that brought the crowd to its feet. After a Laker timeout, Bryant missed a 3 and Stoudamire knocked down a two-pointer to make it 100-92. Bryant added 4 free throws to narrow the deficit to 4, but Stoudamire continued his dominance, driving to the basket for two more. Lamar Odom then fouled out and after Robin Lopez made both shots, Nash added a jumper to make it 102-92 with just 2:48 left. The fans were delirious and although the Lakers got within 6, Phoenix held on for the 118-109 win.

Stoudamire finished with 42 points and 11 boards and has perhaps given pause to his critics. It was a great performance and with Lopez adding 20, the Suns have served notice that the series is not yet over. Bryant added 36 points but many of those were after the game was decided.

Robin Lopez muscles to the basket

Overall, this was a great game, lots of scoring and 12 lead changes. The NBA playoffs have been terribly dull, but perhaps this is a chance for a great series. Game 4 is set for Tuesday night in Phoenix and if the Suns can keep it up, we should be on for a great finish to see who gets to play Boston in the final.

Nash gets 15 assists (and only 1 turnover)

Next up

I'm in Anaheim right now and just about to head over to the Jays-Angels game, for which I will add a post in a couple of days. Tomorrow I fly back to Japan (hence missing game 4) where I'll be taking it easy for the Stanley Cup Finals and the World Cup. I'll add some posts on LA and some other sports happenings in the meantime, so check back in a few days for lots of new stuff.

Best,

Sean

Monday, May 24, 2010

Blue Jays take 1 of 3 in Phoenix


From section 300, row 32, seat 1 - farthest seat from home plate

Interleague play began this weekend and the Blue Jays were in Arizona to visit the Diamondbacks. I had circled these 3 games when the schedule came out late last year as it combined my favourite baseball team and favourite baseball destination. I've posted plenty on Phoenix, so will just talk briefly about each game here as detailed recaps are available in about a million places on the web.

Friday - Arizona 8 Toronto 6

My friend Sharpy joined me for the weekend and was interested in sitting in the Friday's restaurant section above left field. For $30 you get a partial view of the field and a food and drink credit of $30. So essentially the game is free. But you are very far away. It's worth trying once if you are here for a series and want a different experience, but not for just one game.


Dan Haren (above, taken from Friday's) started for the D-backs and promptly gave up a leadoff homer to Fred Lewis. The Jays led 1-0 but things went downhill from there. Arizona scored 2 in the second and 4 more in the fourth, highlighted by a 2-run double from Haren. Edwin Encarnacion hit a homer for Toronto in the 5th, but Haren doubled in another run in the 6th. Encarnacion hit another shot in the 7th, but Arizona's Chris Young replied with a shot of his own in the bottom half to make it 8-3. In the 8th, Jose Bautista homered for Toronto. Haren left after 8 decent innings, walking none and striking out 8. In the 9th, Juan Gutierrez gave up two more solo dingers, including Encarnacion's 3rd of the game. Gutierrez was pulled and Chad Qualls came in to get the final out for the second night in a row.

I've intentionally recapped the game as above because that's how it felt. Runs kept coming without a break. There was scoring in all but one inning (the 3rd), the Jays hit 6 solo homers, only the second time that's happened in MLB history, and Arizona had 8 extra base hits themselves. It was a very entertaining game, but not so enjoyable as the Jays were down early and never really threatened, although they did have the tying run at the plate in the 9th. It was surreal being far away though, especially when home run balls sailed below you - a view I had never seen before.


Saturday - Arizona 8 Toronto 5


More of the same as Jays' starter Dana Eveland gives up 8 runs in 1 1/3 irritating innings (that's him leaving above) and the Jays struggle until the late going, when an Encarnacion 3-run dinger and Aaron Hill solo shot make it 8-5. The score might be slightly respectable but it is much closer than the game was. One of the least enjoyable sporting events I've seen and let's leave it at that.

Dave LaRoche

The good news is that Sharpy got a foul ball off the bat of Lyle Overbay. It bounced off the facing of the second deck, the person behind us yelled heads up, Sharpy ducked but the ball was juggled by the group of fans behind us and rolled down next to Sharpy, who just reached over to pick it up.

Adam Lind above, Mark Reynolds below


It was also 70's night at the ballpark. The cheerleaders were all attired in clothes from that era and disco tunes were played. Unfortunately food prices were still at 2010 levels but it was still as nice idea. Several fans played along too; even the Jays pretended like they were the 1977 team!

Sunday - Toronto 12 Arizona 4

Arizona scored again in the first as Justin Upton drove home Tony Abreu (below) and it looked like another long day at the ballpark.



But the Blue Jays offense finally got on track as Encarnacion hit his 5th homer of the series (a 2-run shot that landed just below Friday's, an absolute monster home run) and Jose Bautista had 4 RBIs to chase Billy Buckner. Shawn Marcum completed 5 serviceable innings and the bullpen was solid as the Jays salvaged the series with the win.

Bautista fouls one back while Encarnacion drives one

Aaron Hill

All-in-all, not a very good set of games, regardless of the outcome. No doubt Friday's big-fly fest was memorable, but the weekend tilts were blowouts that were decided early.

It was a bit of a disappointment after anticipating this series for so long. But that's sports, you never know what's going to happen. For example, you might be in a city watching baseball when another league schedules a playoff game on the same day. That's what happened in Phoenix as game 3 of the conference finals series was set for Sunday evening, just over an hour after the ball game ended. Naturally I went to that too, and will post on that next.

Best,

Sean

Friday, May 21, 2010

San Francisco Giants 7 at Arizona Diamondbacks 8 - May 20, 2010


I'm back in Phoenix for the 3rd time in 3 years. I love the hot desert weather, the In-N-Out burgers, and the scenic drives nearby. Of course, right now Arizona is going through some problems with their new immigration law that permits police to stop those they suspect of being illegal immigrants. As a foreigner in Japan, that sort of treatment is something we are also subject to. It's never happened to me, but friends have reported the occasional encounter with the authorities. I won't get all political here, but I am not boycotting Arizona when there's baseball to be seen.

Friday's Front Row

I posted on Chase Field last year, but there is one thing that I didn't try that I'd like so mention. It's the Friday's Front Row restaurant that is located well above the left field fence. You can eat here before the game and catch batting practice before the gates are opened. If you want to sit there during the game, there are a variety of options, with the most reasonable being the Upper Deck Tables at $30 per person with the entire ticket price being credited to food and drink. As you can see below, you are far away, but it might be worth trying once, and the food wasn't that bad.


The Game


With that said, let's get to the game. I was fortunate that 2-time defending Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum (above) was scheduled to start for the visiting Giants. He leads the majors in strikeouts while the D-backs lead all teams in times fanned, failing to make contact on nearly 25% of plate appearances! So I expected a K-fest tonight.

Just before the game started, the roof opened as it was a perfect 92 degrees outside. Beats the crappy cold cricket I sat through in London last week.


Rodrigo Lopez took the hill for the Diamondbacks and gave up a run in the first on a Pedro Sandoval double (below) that scored Freddy Sanchez, who was just activated off the DL.


Though staked to the early lead, Lincecum was not sharp. It was immediately noticeable as he walked Conor Jackson with one out and then gave up a monster fly ball to Stephen Drew. Chase Field is 413 feet to center and I'd say this ball went 412. But it was just a loud out and Justin Upton struck out to end the first.

Lincecum walked another in the second and then gave a free pass to Lopez in the third. A lead-off double by Adam LaRoche in the fourth went nowhere but it was obvious that Lincecum was struggling, missing with a lot of his pitches and looking frustrated on the mound.

With the Giants up 2-0 in the fifth, Lincecum gave up a 1-out single to Kelly Johnson and then walked Jackson for the second time. Drew then drove the ball down the right-field line that rolled around in the corner, resulting in a 2-run triple. A sacrifice fly by Upton gave the D-backs a 3-2 lead. After a walk to LaRoche, strikeout king Mark Reynolds, who had already K'd twice, crushed a fastball to deep left and Arizona were up by 3. Lincecum finished the inning but his night was over. He had a most interesting line though:
IP H  R  ER  BB  K  NP  BF
5 5 5 5 5 6 100 25
Twenty pitches per inning - certainly his worst start of the season and one that put him in line for his first loss. But Lopez couldn't hold it, giving up back-to-back jacks to Jose Uribe and John Bowker to start the 6th. After a walk and single, Lopez was gone but Sergio Romo was not much help, giving up a sacrifice fly to Sanchez and then intentionally walking Sandoval before Aubrey Huff doubled home two more runs to make it 7-5 Giants. That's back-to-back 5-run innings, an uncommon sight.

In the 7th, Arizona fought back on doubles by LaRoche, Reynolds, and pinch-hitter Chris Young that tied the game at 7. Jeremy Affeldt was on in the 8th and gave up a leadoff double to Jackson, who moved to third on a botched double-play ball off the bat of LaRoche (below).


If Uribe handled the toss at short, the inning would have ended, but he bobbled it and LaRoche was safe. With Reynolds batting, Affeldt tossed one in the dirt that bounced away from former Ottawa Lynx Eli Whiteside. Jackson gambled and took off for home. Whiteside couldn't pick up the ball and Jackson crossed safely with the go-ahead run.


Aaron Heilman continued in the 9th after pitching a perfect 8th, but he was pulled after a 2-out walk. Chad Qualls came in and struck out Uribe on 3 pitches for the save and Arizona had the 2-game sweep with an 8-7 win. Giants' manager Bruce Bochy was ejected (above) arguing the first called strike, but Uribe missed the next two by so much (below) that I don't think it made much difference.


This was not a particularly good game with the Giants walking 9 batters in just 8 innings and blowing two 2-run leads, but it was interesting. Lots of extra-base hits, some monster homers, and the home team winning in their last at-bat is entertaining at least, even at 3:14. Let's hope that's all the winning the Diamondbacks do this weekend.

Notes

The scoreboard here is incredible. The player's season stats, day's performance are shown for each appearance, and for one appearance his entire career stats are shown baseball-card style. The inning summary is also available, as well as the updated pitching line. Lots of interesting stories for each player too. Definitely the most informative scoreboard I've seen.


The Giants had an off-day last week but didn't skip their fifth starter. Lincecum pitched last week on 6-days rest and said he felt uncomfortable. I wonder if the simple decision to give him an extra day threw off his rhythm as he has walked 5 two games in a row.

With the Jays in town for the weekend, I won't do a daily posting of each game, but just a summary of the series. Also hoping to get a Suns-Lakers ticket for Sunday night. Check back early next week for all the details.

Best,

Sean