Sunday, August 29, 2010

2010-11 Winter Trip Schedule


On August 25th, the AHL finally released their 2010-11 schedule. The reason it took so long is that four teams share arenas with the NBA, who only got their schedule out two weeks before. For sports road trippers, this final release means that it's now possible to plan those winter trips that we started dreaming about months ago.

The World Junior Hockey Championships are taking place in Buffalo over the New Year. With the Winter Classic being held in nearby Pittsburgh on January 1st, and the Penguins opening the Consol Energy Center as well, the centerpiece of the trip was set. The next step was finding games on days in between. Fortunately, hockey is popular in the northeast, and there are some NBA games as well, so it wasn't that difficult.

But that's not all. With my base moving from Ottawa, it also gives me more chances to check out the OHL games in southern Ontario as well as making Toronto a quick getaway destination. So I added a weekend in Toronto as well as some additional junior hockey to complete the package. I'll be spending some family time in Ottawa as well, so that will allow me to catch a Senators game as well as the Gatineau Olympiques.

Wisconsin Basketball Excursion

I also checked to see if I could extend my Minnesota trip to watch an AHL game in Iowa. No such luck. But then I noticed that the Milwaukee Bucks were hosting the three-headed monster from Miami on Monday, December 6. Tickets will be tough to get but it's been nearly 20 years since I saw the Bradley Center, so I think I'll drive across Wisconsin to catch that matchup. Turns out that Marquette University has a home game on the Tuesday while the Wisconsin Badgers are home on Wednesday in Madison, which makes for a convenient stopping point on the drive back.

The Schedule

So with all that said, here is the plan for December and January:
Dec  1 Abbotsford Heat at Hamilton Bulldogs 7:00 (AHL)
Dec  3 Calgary Flames at Minnesota Wild 7:00
Dec  4 Cleveland Cavaliers at Minnesota Timberwolves 7:00
Dec  5 Buffalo Bills at Minnesota Vikings 12:00
Dec  6 Miami Heat at Milwaukee Bucks 7:00
Dec  7 Texas A&M Corpus Christi Islanders at Marquette Golden Eagles 7:00 (NCAA Basketball)
Dec  8 UW-Milwaukee Panthers at Wisconsin Badgers 7:30 (NCAA Basketball)
Dec  9 Mississauga St. Michael's Majors at Niagara IceDogs 7:00 (OHL)
Dec 10 Denver Nuggets at Toronto Raptors 7:00
Dec 11 Montreal Canadiens at Toronto Maple Leafs 7:00
Dec 12 Barrie Colts at Mississauga St. Michael's Majors 2:00 (OHL)
Dec 15 Montreal Junior at Gatineau Olympique 7:30 (QMJHL)
Dec 19 Washington Capitals at Ottawa Senators 7:05
Dec 28 Owen Sound Attack at Barrie Colts 7:30 (OHL)
Dec 29 London Knights at Guelph Storm 7:00 (OHL)
Dec 30 Kitchener Rangers at Plymouth Whalers 7:05 (OHL)
Dec 31 Ottawa Senators at Columbus Blue Jackets 7:00
Jan  1 Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins 1:00 (Winter Classic)
Jan  2 Dallas Mavericks at Cleveland Cavaliers 7:00
Jan  3 World Junior Hockey Championship Semi-finals in Buffalo
Jan  4 Rochester Americans at Lake Erie Monsters 7:00 (AHL)
Jan  5 Tampa Bay Lightning at Pittsburgh Penguins 7:00
Jan  7 Kalamazoo Wings at Elmira Jackals 7:35 (ECHL)
Jan  8 Rochester Americans at Binghamton Senators 7:00 (AHL)
Jan  9 Binghamton Senators at Providence Bruins 4:05 (AHL)
Jan 10 Houston Rockets at Boston Celtics 7:30
Jan 11 Albany Devils at Worcester Sharks 7:00 (AHL)
Jan 12 Sacramento Kings at Boston Celtics 7:00
Jan 13 Philadelphia Flyers at Boston Bruins 7:00
Jan 14 Hershey Bears at Adirondack Phantoms 7:00 (AHL)
Jan 15 Springfield Falcons at Albany Devils 7:00 (AHL)
Jan 16 Adirondack Phantoms at Syracuse Crunch 2:00 (AHL)
Certainly an ambitious schedule and some of the games are going to be tough tickets. It's also my first serious winter roadtrip, and I expect a few storms to cause some problems. But it should be fun so follow along here in just over 3 months.

Best,

Sean

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Yokohama Bay Stars 6 at Yakult Swallows 7 - August 25, 2010



An Australian friend of mine who is in Japan for a few months had never seen a baseball game and so I offered to take him and some colleagues to a Yakult Swallows-Yokohama Bay Stars tilt. Both teams are in the bottom half of the Central League, although Yakult has recently gone on a tear to move back to .500 after being 19 games below just a few weeks ago. Yokohama is just horrid though, coming in at 37-72, barely able to win 1/3 of their games. On paper, not a particularly enticing battle, but it turned out to be quite interesting.

Throwback Uniforms

The Central League has been putting on a promotion called the Old Uniform Series where teams where retro uniforms. The mid-week series last week and this were used to showcase these old-style threads. The Swallows broke out their home unis from 1994-98 which was when they were a top team, winning two Nippon Series. For me, this was a trip down memory lane as I watched them win the 1997 championship in these uniforms. That's starter Masanori Ishikawa sporting the fancy duds below.


The Bay Stars returned to their roots as the Yokohama Taiyo Whales, which was their name from 1978-1992. As you can see in the shot of starter Kentaro Takasaki, these retro uniforms are understated, with the W cap signifying Whales and Taiyo on the left sleeve. Very nice.


I always enjoy this type of promotion as it gives fans a chance to see something different. Of course, part of the reason behind this is to sell the uniforms and hats to those same fans, but most seemed more than capable of resisting the temptation.

The Game

Takasaki was making his first start of the season while Ishikawa was on a 7-game winning streak, so it looked like an easy Yakult victory. But Yokohama struck first when one-time Pirate Jose Castillo (below) slammed a two-run homer in the second inning.


Yakult wasted no time in responding though, as Norichika Aoki rapped a 2-run single in the bottom half to tie things up. In the third, the Swallows continued their attack. Three singles and a walk led to another run and loaded bases as Ishikawa came to the plate with two out. He fouled off a couple of touch pitches before bouncing one up the middle for two more runs. Great to see the starting pitcher helping himself out like that. That was the end of the evening for Takasaki who could only last 2 2/3 innings. His replacement was Kazuya Takamiya, who promptly gave up another run-scoring knock to Aoki (below) to make it 6-2 Yakult.


In the 6th, Aoki led off with another single, his 4th hit of the game, bringing his average up to .350, second in the CL. After a sacrifice and a walk, Josh Whitesell singled home Aoki to make it 7-2 and the rout was on. Or so I thought.

Ishikawa had been cruising, having given up just 3 hits in 6 innings. But in the 7th, Termel Sledge led off with a single and Castillo doubled him to third. With two out, pinch-hitter Tatsuhiko Kinjoh slapped a base hit to center to score both runners and bring Yokohama within 3. Ishikawa was removed and Takehiko Oshimoto got the last out of the frame.

In the 8th, Yakult brought in set-up man Kenichi Matsuoka who hit Kazuya Fujita to start things off. It was the fourth hit batsman of the game and I thought it might have been intentional, although no warnings were given. I don't think that Japanese players have the same "code" in the States so it could just be a coincidence, but whatever the case, it was a bad play. Brett Harper (below), a recent acquisition from Sacramento of the PCL who had hit 12 homers in 36 games, came up and crushed a pitch to right field. Suddenly it was 7-6!


The Bay Stars fans were reinvigorated and the team seemed ready to do more damage. But Shuichi Murata and Sledge both flew out to left swinging at the first pitch and the rally fizzled. Although Tatsuya Shimozono doubled and Castillo walked to put runners on first and second, Matsuoka induced pinch-hitter Naoto Inada to pop out and leave the runners stranded.

In the 9th, closer Chang-Yong Lim came in and needed just 9 pitches to retire the side in order for his 27th save of the season. Harper was left in the on-deck circle, much to Yokohama's chagrin.

The game took a ridiculous 3:32 but thankfully Yokohama made it interesting in the end. It was a beautiful night though and my Aussie buddy thoroughly enjoyed himself, though I'm sure he still thinks cricket is the better sport.

Next Up

Hiroshima next week and then back to work for a couple of months to save up for a big December hockey trip. With the AHL schedule finally released, I'm putting the finishing touches on that jaunt, with the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh and the World Juniors in Buffalo just two of the highlights. I'll have a post with the full schedule in a couple of days, so check back then.

Best,

Sean

Monday, August 23, 2010

Return to Minnesota?


I'm in the middle of planning a rather extensive trip home to Canada in December/January. Ottawa is no longer my primary destination as my parents have moved to Belleville, which is much better for short road trips to Toronto and Buffalo among other nearby destinations. I'm still waiting for the AHL schedule to be released this week to finalize the entire trip and will have a post on that shortly.

However, Brett Favre's recent shocking announcement that he would return for another season with Minnesota had me looking at the Vikings' schedule. I was immediately intrigued to see that the Buffalo Bills would be visiting the Mall of America Field on December 5th. I quickly checked out the NHL and NBA schedules and found out that the Timberwolves and Wild also had games that weekend! So I'm tentatively planning a 3-game trip on the way back to Canada as follows:

Fri Dec 3 - Flames at Wild
Sat Dec 4 - Cavaliers at Timberwolves
Sun Dec 5 - Bills at Vikings

The games themselves aren't that exciting but it'll be interesting to see how the Cavs are doing without LeBron and of course, to watch the Bills for the first time will be a thrill. Check back as usual for updates on those games and if you are in the MSP area, drop me a line.

Best,

Sean

Thursday, August 19, 2010

MLB Does Change Calls After the Fact


A couple of months ago, Armando Galarraga lost a perfect game on a blown call by Jim Joyce. Fans and media debated the increased use of instant replay while baseball stood its ground, declaring that the human element is part of the game. Turns out this is not entirely true.

If umpires blow a call, tough luck to those who were on the wrong side of the decision. But if an official scorer makes a mistake, well, then we can go ahead and change that. Two weeks later if need be. I'm referring to an article on MLB.com that explains that Ichiro had a hit taken away after MLB reviewed the scoring decision.

The game took place on August 8th with Kansas City visiting Seattle. In the bottom of the 8th, Ichiro chopped one to short that Mike Aviles fielded cleanly but then threw wildly into the stands, giving Ichiro second base. The original call was an infield hit and a throwing error, but MLB changed this to be a 2-base throwing error instead, so Ichiro has one less hit now. It shouldn't make much difference in the long run, but as he has been struggling (for him) lately, it's no lock that he'll reach 200 hits. I imagine this story will get more play should he finish with 199.

To be fair, the official scorer did seem to have a hometown bias (check the video in the link above) and was rather generous in giving Ichiro the hit. But I don't understand why the Royals formally complained; the error made no difference to the statistics of any of their players as the run was unearned regardless. Interestingly, the boxscore has yet to be updated - Ichiro's stats are correct as he did get one hit in the game, but the linescore still shows 8 hits for the Mariners.

Ultimately though, this story illustrates baseball's hypocrisy. If the human element is part of the game, then it should be that way for everybody. But if only official scorers are subject to second-guessing, then why not use replay as well? Of course, double standards are nothing new to the powers that run baseball. I'll stop complaining now so we can all sit back and enjoy watching the Yankees and their $200 million payroll fight their way to another playoff spot.

Best,

Sean

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.


Thoughts

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.

Best,

Sean

Friday, August 13, 2010

Orlando Titans ceasing operations


The National Lacrosse League seems to have at least one team fold or move every off-season (1993 was the last time there was no franchise movement), and this year is no different. The Orlando Titans, who finished first in the East in their only year in Florida, have ceased operations for the 2011 season. No need to rehash the article, but the dispersal draft was held last week. Orlando had the league's best goalie in Matt Vinc as well as the MVP in Casey Powell, both will be leading other teams next season.

Fortunately I had a chance to see the Titans play in Orlando in January, and it was a good experience with a lively crowd. But with only 8 home games, even a decent average crowd of 7,000 isn't enough to make a profit. A lot of those fans probably received promotional tickets and operating costs may have been higher than anticipated. In the NLL, players don't usually live in the city they play in, so even home games require a lot of flights, which adds to expenses. It seems like the model is not one conducive to having successful teams in cities far away.

Anyway, here's hoping they get their ownership situation sorted and are back in the league in 2012. The NLL could use some stability, which is always helpful in planning road trips.

Best,

Sean

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hiroshima Trip Re-planned


Earlier this year I had planned a week-long trip to Osaka and Hiroshima. Circumstances forced me to cancel the trip, but I've finally managed to find the time and some interesting games that will get me to Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium in early September.

The trip starts with a Nabisco Cup quarterfinal game between Gamba Osaka and Sanfrecce Hiroshima on September 1st. On the 2nd, I will take a day trip to Yuu in Yamaguchi Prefecture to watch a Western League game between the Chunichi Dragons and Hiroshima Carp. The weekend will then be spent back in Hiroshima watching the Tigers and Carp battle it out in a 3-game set. My friend Meg will be visiting as part of the JapanBall excursion for one of those games so it will be fun to catch up with her then.

It's a short trip with just a few games but as usual you can follow along here.

Best,

Sean

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

bj League expands to 16 teams


The 2010-11 bj League season gets underway in just over 2 months on October 16th. There are 3 new teams this year: Akita Northern Happinets; Shimane Susanoo Magic; and Miyazaki Shining Suns. This makes 16 teams in the league with each club playing 52 games. Most games are weekend doubleheaders, meaning that there are games on Saturday and Sunday with the same visiting team. However, no team uses the same venue for all home games. For example, the Niigata club has 9 different gyms in which they play. This makes following the team slightly more difficult, but it does allow for fans from different cities a chance to see a game. The Tokyo Apache have yet to determine where there games will be held.

The funny thing is that although there are now 16 teams, the divisions are not evenly split. There are 7 teams in the East and 9 in the West. I don't know why they can't move Takamatsu (on the island of Shikoku) to the East and even it up. Yeah, it's not geographically correct, but unbalanced divisions drive me nuts. It's simply easier to make the playoffs with 7 teams.

In Japan, there is a strict division between East and West though, and obviously it means more to have all the teams in the west playing each other, likely to keep travel costs down. Whatever the case, I'm going to try to get out to some of these places to catch some action.

Best,

Sean

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Chiba Lotte Marines 1 at Yomiuri Giants 2 - Eastern League - August 9, 2010

There's usually no baseball on Monday here in Japan as both the majors and minors take the day off. But for some reason, there was a minor-league game between Lotte and Yomiuri at Tokyo Dome yesterday. These are the top two teams in the Eastern League, and I wanted to see how the crowd would be, so I went to check it out.

The Game


Keisuke Saito (above) started for Yomiuri. He's in his second season but hasn't seen much action this year. He has an odd delivery in that he leaves his arm behind him as you can see in the picture. Yuta Omine was on the hill for the Marines. He's been up with the big club this season but struggled with an ERA over 5.

Ikusei player Kota Sumi flies out

The game was scoreless in the 4th when Daisuke Fujimura led off for the Giants with a triple. Daisuke Nakai followed with a fly to left. Fujimura broke for home as Katsuya Kakunaka made the catch. The throw was on time but catcher Masahiko Tanaka couldn't hold on as Fujimura slid home. But the umpire didn't see the ball bounce out of Tanaka's glove and made an emphatic out call. After the Giants pointed out the error, the umps had a conference, and the call was sheepishly reversed.

In the 6th, Fujimura singled and Nakai drove him home with a double to make it 2-0 Giants. Meanwhile the Yomiuri pitchers were keeping Lotte off the board. Saitoh lasted 5 1/3 striking out 4, but it was a laborious effort as he threw 89 pitches. Yuki Furukawa and Jumpei Ohno each pitched to a batter to end the 6th. I was surprised to see top-team closer Marc Kroon come out for the 7th, I guess he is on rehab. He's a fireballer who has 168 saves over 6 seasons here, with 1.3 K/IP. He also holds the record for the fastest pitch thrown here at 161 km/h (100 mph). Anyway, he pitched a perfect inning.

Taishi Ohta breaks his bat

Finally in the 8th, Takuma Sadaoka started with a single off the Giants' 5th hurler of the evening, Kyohei Tsuchimoto. A double by Hiroshi Miyamoto and a walk to Shota Omine (who goes by Shota) loaded the bases and ended Tsuchimoto's evening. Veteran Yasunari Takagi took over and got Kakunaka to ground to second, scoring the Marines' first run on the force at second. Pinch hitter Toshio Saito then grounded into a double play to end the threat.


In the 9th, Yi-Hao Lin, a Taiwanese prospect who was recently added to the Giants roster from the ikusei program, entered the game. After a leadoff single to Cuban Juan Muniz (above calling off Shota), Lin settled down to strike out two and get Tanaka to fly out to end the game. The Giants used 7 pitchers in all, but it seemed to work as Lotte only managed 6 hits. The game took 2:54, mainly due to all the pitching changes.

With the win, Yomiuri moved within a game of league-leading Lotte, with two more games in the series, including another one tonight at the Tokyo Dome.

The Minors In Japan


Before I got there, I was expecting a few thousand fans. But the attendance was over 17,000! That's more than watched a Swallows game I went to last month. I used to think that the NPB ignores the potential revenue from having the minor leagues play in the evening in smaller towns where community matters more. There are plenty of decent stadiums that could support 54 games a year. Moreover, the players need more chances to see game action. The Giants have 83 players on their roster, split between the major and minor team. Why not make 3 teams with 25-28 players on each roster and have 2 minor leagues with players moving up and down and team names that are different from the big club?

Well, that was all just a pipe dream. The Shonan Searex are the only team in the minors to have a different team name than their big-league counterparts (Yokohama Bay Stars) and they usually play in the evenings at Yokosuka Stadium. Unfortunately, it looks like that will change after this season as they revert to the Yokohama name. I guess that minor league baseball just doesn't appeal to a large segment of the population here, fans want established names to cheer for.

Best,

Sean

Monday, August 9, 2010

Sports Road Trips in Japan


One of the reasons I started road tripping in the States is that I missed driving. Living in Tokyo, there is no reason to drive anywhere. Owning a car is prohibitively expensive, and highways are crowded and have high toll charges. For me, it was much nicer to fly back to North America, rent a car, and spend a couple of weeks on the highways and byways, checking out a variety of sporting events.

My few "road trip" experiences in Japan were on trains. Although it's convenient, you lose control of your situation, relying on schedules and often unable to make it to every event you would like. Furthermore, trains are not cheap, a return ticket on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka is around $300. The only solution if I am to stay in Japan any longer was to give in and start driving. So after 14 years, I finally got a Japanese driver's license. For Canadians, the process is simple: you just need to show your license from home, its translation, and a few other documents. Three hours later, presto - I can drive in Japan.

So I'm going to start trying to plan road trips in Japan. This will involve finding somewhere with two or three diverse sports events on a weekend and renting a car and driving there. This is only going to work in areas reasonably close to Tokyo; it's 10 hours to Hiroshima for example, so you'd spend the whole weekend on the road. But I'll try some closer places to see how economical it is compared to train travel. Check back for a trip to be posted here soon.

Best,

Sean

Sunday, August 8, 2010

USA 3 vs Cuba 4 (10) - World University Baseball Championship Final - August 7, 2010


Yesterday was the last day of the WUBC. Japan knocked off Korea 9-0 in the 3rd place game in the afternoon to take the Bronze medal. On Friday, Canada took 5th place with a 15-14 extra inning win over Chinese Taipei while China grabbed 7th with a 10-0 win over Sri Lanka, who finished the tournament being outscored 94-0 in just 6 games.

So we were left with the USA and Cuba, two undefeated teams battling it out for world supremacy at Jingu Stadium.


The Game


I arrived a few minutes late but was happy to see that Gerritt Cole (UCLA, above) was the starter for the USA. I saw him pitch a few months ago when I was in LA and it was interesting to see him go again for his country. He was drafted by the Yankees in 2008 but chose to go to school, and it was a wise decision as he'll likely be a top-10 pick next year (update: he went first overall to Pittsburgh).


Cuba started Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez (above), a tall righty with a rubber arm. Both pitchers were throwing hard, Cole hit 156 on the gun (97) while Gonzalez was up to 153 (95). The Cuban offense was much better at getting on base though, but they couldn't hit once they had men on. Over 6 innings, they had 10 hits but had yet to score a run. The USA couldn't score either though, and the game entered the 8th inning still tied 0-0.


In the 8th, Andrew Maggi (Arizona State) laced an outside fastball to right field that just cleared the fence and gave the Yanks a 1-0 lead (above).


In the bottom, Cole was replaced by Noe Ramirez (Cal State Fullerton) who promptly gave up a similar shot to Alfredo Despaigne which tied the game at 1 (above).


In the 9th, Team USA had men on the corners but Jason Esposito struck out to end the threat (below).


In the bottom half, Frank Camilo Morejon led off with a double and after a hit batsman (below), wild pitch, and intentional walk, Cuba had the bases loaded with nobody out. Team USA then brought in Nick Ramirez (Cal State Fullerton) who was playing first. He's not nearly as fast and he had the Cuban batters ahead of themselves when swinging. First, Ramirez induced Yoilan Cerce into the 1-2-3 DP and then got Hector Olivera to fly out to center to escape the jam.


This brought us to extra innings which is where I lost interest in the game. Why? Because the international baseball rules are similar to women's softball in the Olympics. The first two hitters in the line up (not those due up, but batters #1 and 2) are placed on second and first base respectively in order to increase the possibility of runs. The leadoff batter in the inning is then the 3rd-place hitter who naturally sacrifices if possible. Jackie Bradley Jr. (South Carolina) did this and both runners scored later in the inning on a ground out and a single. Gonzalez was finally removed after giving up the second run, having thrown 151 pitches but the US couldn't add to their total.

So now Cuba had their chance. Surprisingly Nick Ramirez remained in the game, as the USA had Matt Barnes ready. Olivera was the first batter and he drove a ball deep to center that Bradley tracked down, allowing the second-base runner to advanced to third. This brought Despaigne up and he drove the second pitch he saw deep to left. There was no doubt about this one, it was long gone and Cuba wins 4-3! That's Despaigne jumping into his waiting teammates below.


Why I hate this system is that it screws up my scorebook up and also ruins the integrity of the statistics. How many of those runs are earned? How do you score a guy on first without him batting? Aarrggh. This is just as annoying as Olympic hockey shootouts or PKs in the World Cup. In overtime, play the game the same way regardless of how long it takes!

Anyway, after Cuba celebrated, there was a nice little ceremony where the medals were awarded. Despaigne was named the MVP of the tournament, having hit 4 homers. The best 9 included a couple of Japanese (P Tatsuya Ohishi, who struck out 10 of the 14 batters he faced, and OF Shota Ishimine, who hit .458 in 24 AB) and a Canadian (2B Chad Marshall who batted .444). Below are the three medal teams.


Thoughts

Overall, this tournament is not that interesting. There are 3 good teams and the games between them were excellent. There are 3 OK teams (Canada, Korea, Chinese Taipei) and games between them were usually good. Finally, there are two teams that can barely play baseball and all of their games were blowouts. I hope that they at least reduce the field to 6 teams and play a full-round robin. Canada didn't face Cuba or Japan here and I would have liked to see how they did. I am glad I saw Japan and the US, I expect many of these players will be facing off again in a future WBC.

I didn't mention the Cuban players school because they all attend something called the ISCF. They also seem to play professionally so I'm not sure that this tournament is entirely fair.

Next Up

Not much to see in the next few weeks. There's a minor league game at Tokyo Dome on Monday night that I'll check out but otherwise the schedule is pretty blank for August. I plan on visiting Hiroshima sometime in the next two months, so check back for a schedule on that shortly.

Best,

Sean

MLB Pennant Races - Part 2


A couple of months ago I posted the MLB standings after 54 games. Each team has just completed 108 games and it's mildly interesting to see how things have changed.

What is most notable is how most teams are quite consistent. Only the Chicago White Sox had a difference of more than 10 games, improving from 23-31 in the first third of the season to 39-15 in the second for a 16-game jump that propelled them into first. The biggest drop in wins was just 6, with Toronto (of course), Pittsburgh, and the Dodgers all falling off their early pace by that amount.

All of the divisions except one have a good two-team pennant race with the second-place team two games or less behind the leader. Only Texas is dominating the AL West with a 9-game lead over Oakland and the Angels. The closest third-place team is Boston, 6 games back.

Essentially the second 54 games are where the good teams leave the weaker squads behind. It is tough for any of the third-place teams to make a run with less than two months to play and two teams ahead of them.

The standings below show the 108 game records for all teams as well as their records over the last 54 games and the difference in wins between the first 54 and second 54 games. I'm not sure how useful this is, but the most interesting team is the Giants who have moved within a game of the San Diego in the NL West. If you extrapolate their 4-game improvement, they might be the favourites in the race. Whatever the case, the NL is much more intriguing with the Wild Card also up for grabs; the East loser will likely take the WC spot in the junior circuit.
                     
54W 54L Win
AL East W L GB Diff
New York 67 41 33 21 -1
Tampa Bay 67 41 31 23 -5
Boston 61 47 6 30 24 -1
Toronto 56 52 11 25 29 -6
Baltimore 35 73 32 20 34 5

54W 54L Win
AL Central W L GB Diff
Chicago 62 46 39 15 16
Minnesota 60 48 2 29 25 -2
Detroit 53 55 9 25 29 -3
Cleveland 46 62 16 25 29 4
Kansas City 46 62 16 24 30 2

54W 54L Win
AL West W L GB Diff
Texas 63 45 34 20 5
Los Angeles 54 54 9 28 26 2
Oakland 54 54 9 26 28 -2
Seattle 40 68 23 18 36 -4

54W 54L Win
NL East W L GB Diff
Atlanta 62 46 30 24 -2
Philadelphia 60 48 2 30 24 0
New York 54 54 8 27 27 0
Florida 53 55 9 26 28 -1
Washington 48 60 14 22 32 -4

54W 54L Win
NL Central W L GB Diff
Cincinnati 60 48 29 25 -2
St. Louis 60 48 29 25 -2
Milwaukee 50 58 10 28 26 6
Houston 47 61 13 27 27 7
Chicago 47 61 13 23 31 -1
Pittsburgh 38 70 22 16 38 -6

54W 54L Win
NL West W L GB Diff
San Diego 63 45 31 23 -1
San Francisco 62 46 1 33 21 4
Colorado 56 52 7 28 26 0
Los Angeles 56 52 7 25 29 -6
Arizona 40 68 23 20 34 0
Best,

Sean

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Japan 2 vs USA 4 - World University Baseball Championship Semi-final - August 5, 2010




The WUBC held its semifinals today after a quarterfinal round that was ridiculously non-competitive. Three of the four games were called in 7 innings, including Japan hammering Chinese Taipei 13-0. I was surprised that the Taiwanese couldn't do better after taking the USA to extra innings. The other two blowouts were as expected with the US beating Sri Lanka 11-0 and Cuba knocking off China 14-0.

In the only competitive match, Canada lost to Korea 7-4. Huge disappointment for them (and me) after finishing second in their pool, but not entirely unexpected. Canada beat China in a "ranking decider" and will now play the winner of Chinese Taipei and Sri Lanka (i.e. Chinese Taipei) in the 5th place game tomorrow.

Cuba defeated Korea 11-1 in the first semi-final today in yet another called game. But the match that everyone was waiting for was the nightcap between Japan and Team USA.

The Warmup

I got there two hours early to get a good seat because I expected a large crowd. I watched both teams warmup, both batting practice and infield, and it was an interesting contrast. The Americans were more relaxed and playful while Japan approached theirs with almost military precision. It was quite a show when Japan finished their infield as each player would take a sharp grounder and throw home while running in. The fans applauded the performance after it was over. Definitely worth watching if you ever have the chance.

Nick Ramirez

Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mikie Mahtook (LSU) play catch

Team USA kicks the ball around

Japan's Kisho Kagami (Hosei) helps out during infield

The Game


It was a picture perfect day at Yokohama Stadium, although a bit humid early on. Sonny Gray (Vanderbilt) got the start for Team USA. He's "only" 6'0" and 185 lbs, but he throws heat. His first pitch was 152 km/h (94 mph) and he hit that late in the game as well. He also showed a decent curve ball at times. He's considered one of the best college pitching prospects and will be a first-round pick in 2011.


His mound opponent was Yuki Saitoh (Waseda, above) who is probably Japan's #1 college pitcher. He's been famous here since he led his high school team to a national championship in 2006, and he'll be a top draft pick later this year.


So it looked to be a pitcher's duel, but it didn't start that way. Shota Ishimine (Tokai) worked a walk to lead off the game, fouling off a couple of tough pitches to stay alive. An errant pickoff throw from Gray allowed Ishimine to reach second (above). Kimio Watanabe (Kokugakuin, below), a 5'5" second baseman, followed with a 2-strike sacrifice that got Ishimine to third. Gray then unleashed a wild pitch that sailed to the backstop (it was scored as a passed ball for some strange reason) and Ishimine trotted home to give the visiting Japanese a 1-0 lead. Gray then struck out Daichi Suzuki (Toyo) and Hayata Itoh (Keio) to end the inning.


In the bottom half, Nolan Fontana (Florida) battled Saitoh for a 1-out base on balls. Jackie Bradley Jr. (South Carolina) followed with a bloop to right and Ryan Wright (Louisville) was hit to load the bases. George Springer (Connecticut) came up and Saitoh left one up in the zone that Springer crushed to left field. Grand Slam! Springer whooped it up as he rounded third (below), and was heartily congratulated at home plate. Saitoh settled down and retired Nick Ramirez (Cal State Fullerton) and Jason Esposito (Vanderbilt) to keep it 4-1.


In the second, Koichiro Matsumoto (Rikkio) led off with a double. A groundout by Yuichi Hasegawa (Kinki) moved Matsumoto to third and he scored on a chopper by Fumiya Araki (Meiji) to cut the deficit to 2. It was typical Japanese baseball, station-to-station, and a lot of fun to watch.

Daichi Suzuki fouls one off

Saitoh had some control problems in the second, hitting another batter and walking Fontana again, but Bradley grounded out to end the threat. After that, pitching took over the game. Gray was solid, going 7 innings, giving up just 3 hits and 2 walks. Saitoh lasted 6 frames, surrendering just 4 hits and 2 walks, as well as 3 HBP.

Andrew Maggi (Arizona State) bunts for a single here

The relievers on both squads were excellent. Masahiro Inui (Toyo) pitched a scoreless 7th for Japan and Tatsuya Ohishi (Waseda) struck out all 3 batters he faced in the 8th, hitting 150 on the gun. For Team USA, Noe Ramirez (Cal State Fullerton) relieved Gray and gave up a walk but struck out 3 in his 2 innings. The last batter of the game was Hasegawa (below), who hit a sharp grounder to third that Esposito snagged in a fine play, throwing to first to end the game.


This was a fantastic battle. It was great to watch the pitchers throw heat inning after inning. The two US pitchers were dominant as Japan only managed 6 baserunners and never more than one in any inning. Just that one mistake by Saitoh cost Japan the game, but that's baseball. There were no hits after the 5th inning and the game ended in just 2:26. It was a great game to watch and the 6,500 in attendance enjoyed the match, if not the final result.


I liked the linescore above. Both teams had twice as many runs as hits and errors. A rare sighting indeed. After this, both teams only managed two hits as you can see in the final below.


The USA now plays Cuba in the final on Saturday back at Jingu Stadium. I'm not sure I'll be able to go due to personal commitments but if you are in Tokyo, I would suggest you stop by.

Nick Ramirez skies one to center

Thoughts

One thing I liked about this game was the relative quiet. There were no promotions between innings, no annoying PA guys, no cheering sections, just two teams playing hard. The Japanese fans tried a few "Nippon Nippon" cheers near the end but they didn't last long with the way the US was pitching.

They should just do away with this tournament and have Japan, the US, and Cuba play; the other countries are not competitive at all. Out of 20 games so far, 13 have been called before 9 innings. Quite simply, only the US and Japan have good college baseball programs and it shows here.

Best,

Sean

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

USA 8 vs Canada 1 - World University Baseball Championships - August 2, 2010


Yesterday was the 4th and final day of the round robin games at the WUBC. Over the weekend, Cuba defeated Korea 18-0 and Japan 13-7 to take first place in group B. Meanwhile the USA had to go to extra innings to knock off Chinese Taipei 8-7 in a seesaw battle. The other games were all blowouts as Canada beat Sri Lanka 18-0 while China lost to Japan 15-0 and Korea 13-4.


All of this means that group B is set with Cuba, Japan, Korea, and China finishing 1 through 4. But group A saw Canada and the US both 2-0, while Chinese Taipei and Sri Lanka were 0-2. In the afternoon, the Taiwanese hammered Sri Lanka 16-0 to take 3rd and set up a meeting with Japan today. But it was the evening game between the US and Canada (above) that would decide 1st place and the easier path to the semi-finals with the winner playing China while the loser would get Korea in the quarterfinals.

Yokohama Stadium

After a weekend of games in Jingu Stadium, the day-night doubleheaders moved to Yokohama Stadium. This is the home ground of the Yokohama BayStars. Built in 1978, it's another typically nondescript NPB stadium, although one of the better ones, which isn't saying much. Orange seats encircle the field tapering down as they approach centerfield. There is a large section of shiny blue seats between the bases which seem to be the most expensive section when the BayStars but I'm not sure why. The extremely annoying protective screen doesn't stretch down the lines as it does in other stadiums, so there are actually some good seats near home plate. There's also a relatively large foul area which puts you further away from the action. The bases are surrounded by dirt, but the basepaths are actually turf painted brown.


The best thing about it is that it is located right next to Kannai station in downtown Yokohama, which is a great city and well worth visiting if you are touring Japan. Otherwise, the ballpark is another testament to Japanese baseball's preference for function over fan comfort.

The Game


Canada was the home team and also had the advantage of having Sunday off while the USA had played a 4-hour contest against Chinese Taipei. The States started Matt Barnes (Connecticut, above), who is considered a top prospect in the 2011 MLB draft. He showed why last night. His fastball was overpowering, hitting 92-93 regularly and Canadian hitters had trouble getting around on it. He didn't toss much offspeed stuff, just kept working the fastball to different locations and challenging the batters to do something. He ended up pitching 7 scoreless, yielding just 3 hits and striking out 8.


Meanwhile, Canada started Eric Brown (UBC), who walked the first batter of the game, Andrew Maggi of Arizona State. Nolan Fontana (Florida) followed with a sharp liner on a hit and run play (above) to the third baseman Mark Ellis (Southern Mississippi) who doubled up Maggi much to the relief of Canadian fans.



Brown was not so fortunate in the second inning though, giving up a leadoff double to George Springer (Connecticut) who was singled home by DH Nick Ramirez (Cal State Fullerton, above). That's Springer scoring below. Although that was all the Yanks would get in the inning, Brown was removed after just two frames.



Luis Castillo (Bellevue, above) replaced him and pitched two strong innings before the Americans finally got going. After two walks to lead off the 5th, Maggi drove a double to the left field wall to make it 2-0. A wild pitch was a blessing for Canada though as Steve Rodriguez (UCLA, below) was called out trying to make it home. In reality, he was safe as the tag missed him by a mile and the US manager had a loud argument with the umpire, to no avail. Didn't matter much as Nolan Fontana (Florida) grounded out to score Maggi.


In the 6th, Canada committed two grievous errors, including a dropped fly ball at the fence by Aaron Dunsmore (Dayton), and the USA plated two gimme runs to make it 5-0. A singleton in the 7th and a homer from Jason Esposito (Vanderbilt) in the 8th put the game out of reach. Canada did manage a run on a bases-loaded walk from Ryan Fleming (Georgia State) off Sean Gilmartin (Florida State) but Ramirez was brought in from the DH position to close the game, which he did by retiring all 4 batters he faced. It was his RBI single in the ninth that capped the scoring to make the final 8-1.

Jackie Bradley Jr of NCAA Champion South Carolina grounds out

It was not a pretty game as the Americans showed their superiority in all aspects of the sport. The only thing Canada was better at was fan cheering. There was a rambunctious group of Canucks cheering on their team and getting some of the local fans involved as well. It was nice to see a young Japanese kid ran back and forth with the Canadian flag.

The Quarterfinals

The US gets to play China today in Yokohama while Canada has a tougher battle against Korea. For some reason, this game is being played at a stadium about 2 hours from where I live, so I won't be going. Tomorrow sees both games in Yokohama: Cuba and Sri Lanka in the afternoon with Japan taking on Chinese Taipei in the evening.

Thoughts on the Tournament

I was hoping for a Japan-US final but they will meet in the semis now, assuming that Japan beats the Taiwanese tomorrow. The winner of that game would likely meet Cuba in the final.

This tournament uses wood bats, thankfully. The NCAA uses metal bats and it really ruins the games for me (ping is not a baseball sound), but it didn't seem like the players have any trouble pounding out hits with the wood sticks.

One thing that sucks about this tournament is that games on the same day are not played one after another, but rather are scheduled with 3 hour breaks and require separate admission. It's 2,000 yen to get in ($23) which is not cheap. The quality has been sorely lacking too. It surprises me that they can't find 8 countries with a solid baseball program at the college level, so ridiculously weak teams like Sri Lanka and China are here. I guess in many of the Latin countries such as the Dominican Republic, players are already signed by the time they are eligible for this tournament.

There are some annoying in-stadium things that you'll only find in Japan. First, after every foul ball into the stands, they announce in both English and Japanese to watch out for foul balls. Even if the same batter fouls 4 in a row into the seats, they will dutifully remind us each and every time to be careful. Another useful bit of advice is to drink water to avoid heatstroke. This was repeated several times as well, despite it being a night game and relatively cool. Finally, within seconds of the final out, a guy started yelling over a megaphone telling us that the game was over and we had to clear out the stadium. Duh, really?! Just give us a few minutes to watch the celebration and complete the scorecard, OK. We're not planning to stay the night. And with just 500 people, there's no need for the megaphone. These examples demonstrate how frustratingly stupid Japan can be - they are not capable of adapting their script as circumstances dictate. Hence 20 years of economic malaise, but that's another story.

Best,

Sean