Saturday, October 31, 2009

Vegalta Sendai 2 at Omiya Ardija 1 (a.e.t., Emperor's Cup 3rd Round) - October 31, 2009

Back in August, I went to a ballgame in Omiya Stadium. Next door lies NACK5 Stadium, home of the J League's Omiya Ardija. From the outside, it looked like a nice cozy soccer venue worth visiting sometime. So when I saw that Ardija had an Emperor's Cup tie against J2 powerhouse Vegalta Sendai, I thought it would be a nice way to spend Hallowe'en afternoon. So off to Omiya I went.

The Emperor's Cup

Much like the FA Cup in England, the Emperor's Cup can be contested by any soccer team that is a member of the Japan Football Association. Each of Japan's 47 prefectures holds its own competition in which the champion advances to the first round proper of the Emperor's Cup, where they are joined by the national university champ. The 24 winners of the Round 1 games are then joined by the 36 J League teams as well as the top 4 teams from the 3rd-tier Japan Football League. These 64 teams then play a 6-round knockout system that culminates in the championship game played on New Year's Day in Tokyo. Counting the prefectural competitions, there are over 6,000 teams participating in the tournament, but coverage really only begins from the first round proper.

Unfortunately, the draw is planned out entirely in advance and in round 2, all the top-tier teams are given matches against the winners of round 1. In other words, two Round 1 winners cannot meet in Round 2. Since the smaller teams are guaranteed a tough opponent immediately, it is difficult for them advance farther into the tournament. Certainly there are some upsets (a team from Matsumoto defeated recent Asian Champions Urawa Reds last month and Meiji University won today over J1 side Montedio Yamagata) but it would be better if each round was drawn separately and completely randomly to give these lesser lights a chance at playing each other.

NACK5 Stadium

Originally known as Omiya Park Soccer Stadium, Nack5 Stadium is located on the southern edge of Omiya Park, next to Omiya Baseball Stadium. It was built back in 1960 for the Tokyo Olympics, where several early-round soccer matches were held. It was renovated in 1997 and then expanded a few years back when Ardija moved up to J1. Since then, it's been called NACK5 Stadium after a local FM radio station bought the naming rights.

It's about a 20-minute walk from Omiya station, passing through a nice tree-lined pedestrian path that approaches Hikawa Shrine. It's a beautiful walk when the weather is nice, as it was today. As you near the shrine, veer right and go around a bend in the road where you will see the stadium. There's no sidewalks in part of this area, which is surprising as pedestrians walk along the roads which must frustrate the local drivers after a game.

Approaching the stadium, you won't see much - mostly concrete and fences. But once inside, you should be impressed: this venue is the best soccer stadium I've seen in Japan (which isn't saying much, I've only been to 4). It's small and there's no track between the pitch and the seats, so you are right on top of the action. On the south side, known as the main stand, there's a roof covering some of the seating area, and the front row is about 10-12 feet off the pitch, so you have a great view from down low. On the north side, you are right at field level, and there's only about 10 rows there, so not a bad seat to be had. On either end are the supporters sections. In each section, the front part is for the serious cheering groups: there are no seats there, just standing spots where fans can jump and wave flags. Above that are seats for the less enthusiastic fans - they rise quite high and likely present a very nice view of the overall stadium. The west side houses the Ardija faithful while the visitors take the east side.

There's 5 ticket options: category 1 seats which are in the middle of the north and south sides, category 2 seats that are closer to the goals on these sides, and then category 3-5 seats that take up the end zones. Prices differ depending on the nature of the game, but today I sat in category 2 seats for 2,500 yen and highly recommend those to anyone going for the first time. All seats are orange, which is Ardija's colour, although on one side of the stadium OMIYA is spelled out with some white seats, on the other side it says NACK5 (below).

The stadium did not seem to allow for wandering around between the different areas, so I couldn't get a feel for food options. The one food stand I did visit offered chicken with corn chips and some small cake donuts, which were not bad and not overpriced.

Overall, NACK5 is what every soccer stadium should try to be: a soccer-only facility that allows fans to experience the action up close. Highly recommend soccer fans visiting Japan to include this venue on their must-see list.

The Game

Today was the 3rd round of the tournament and Vegalta Sendai were the opposition. Vegalta lies 2nd in J2, which means they will likely be playing in J1 next year. Omiya, on the other hand, are near the bottom of the table in J1, so despite the difference in leagues I was expecting a close match.

Happy Ardija players before the game

But Omiya was hot early and within 10 minutes had 4 good chances, including a couple that dribbled just wide. Although Ardija controlled the play, their lack of finish would come back to haunt them. In the 27th minute, a controversial free kick was awarded to Sendai just outside the Omiya box. The ball was headed by Sendai midfielder Shingo Tomita and keeper Koji Izumi dove to save it (shown below). But the ball bounced off the post to Yuki Nakashima who easily shepherded it home as Izumi lay far out of the picture. Here's a video on YouTube of the goal.

Sendai had a shock 1-0 lead, but it didn't last long. Just 10 minutes later, as Omiya defender Daisuke Tomita dribbled into Vegalta's box, he was tripped and fell to the ground. It was a stupid tackle attempt as Tomita was just barely inside the box, but it was a foul and therefore a penalty. Croatian Mato took the spot kick and made no mistake, depositing in the right corner to tie the match at 1 (below).

Sendai had another great chance just before halftime as Takayuki Nakahara was gifted a perfect pass as he ran into the box but he chested it to Izumi before gaining control and we went to the break knotted at 1.

In the second half, I still thought Omiya had the run of play, but at one point it was end-to-end action as both teams went for the winner. But neither could find the back of the net and we were headed for extra time as there are no game replays in this tournament.

Daisuke Tomita at the break

In the first half of the extra period, Sendai was again awarded a questionable free kick just outside the box. This time Ryang Yong-Gi took the kick and he was able to curl it around the wall (shown below) and just under a diving Izumi for the 2-1 lead. Silence hit the Ardija fans who could not believe what they were seeing. Sendai did not let up, almost adding another but they then wisely adopted a more defensive posture for the last 15 minutes. Omiya tried to equalize and had a few chances as time wound down, but they could not secure the necessary goal and the game ended with Sendai taking the upset.

There's no doubt that Ardija outplayed Vegalta for the most part, but they could not score during normal play, missing chance after chance. Sendai capitalized on two set plays and that was enough to send them on to round 4. This was a very entertaining game, helped by the fact that you can sit so close. The only negative were the Sendai players faking injury, which I'll talk about shortly. The refereeing wasn't that good either; I felt that a lot of fouls were questionable, particularly the one that led to the winning free kick. Without replay though, I'll never know for sure.

Still, it was a good afternoon and I'd like to go back again, if only to see a fuller stadium. As the early rounds of the Emperor's Cup are not considered a big event, only 5,489 people made it out, or about a 3rd of capacity. That left the cheering sections rather quiet, when I was expecting a much more raucous crowd.

Headed away

More Things I Hate

I love sports, but each game gives me something to hate. Soccer is no different, and without a doubt, my pet peeve in soccer is the biggest annoyance in all of sports.

What drives me nuts is when players are fouled and drop to the ground writhing in pain like they have been shot. The referee runs over, the player grimaces and rolls around some more, the ref calls for the stretcher, the player is carried off the field where, once off the stretcher, he miraculously recovers to re-enter the game as if nothing had happened. Have these guys no shame?

I think if the stretcher comes on and carries you off, you stay off for 5 minutes. Hey, I know it hurts when you get kicked. But be a man! Walk it off! The Sendai players did this so often I wondered if Vegalta was a Latin word for wuss (it's not, rather it's related to the legend of Tanabata).

These fake injuries disrupt the flow of the game and are only used to try to get yellow cards given to the opposition. And FIFA still yaps on about fair play. Maybe they should first put a stop to this tiresome act that makes the game anything but fair.

Next Up

More soccer next week as the ACL final takes place on Saturday night. It features Al Ittihad from Saudi Arabia against Pohang Steelers from Korea. I'm just going to see what it's like - very curious how many fans from each side show up. Sunday I make a return trip to Todoroki, home of Kawasaki Frontale, to see them take on JEF United Chiba. Kawasaki are in first place with just 4 games left, so I'm going to watch a couple of games as they run for the title. Chiba, who I visited earlier this season, are on the verge of relegation unfortunately and this game could be the one that sends them down to J2. Updates will be posted next week.



It's a Four-Sport Weekend in Philly

Despite living in Japan, I'm always looking for cool roadtrip ideas, even if I can't make them. With the MLB season extending into November, it's the first time in history when regularly scheduled games in all 4 sports are taking place on the same day. In the past, baseball was finished before the NBA started their season. Of course, there's always exhibition games, but those don't count for road trips.

So with the Phillies in the World Series this weekend, I thought it'd be interesting to see if the other Philadelphia teams are at home too. Sure enough, all 3 have home games which leads to a very rare 4-sport weekend!

Friday October 30th Bucks at 76ers
Saturday October 31st Hurricanes at Flyers/Yankees at Phillies
Sunday November 1st Giants at Eagles

Naturally you could stay for games 4 and 5 of the World Series as well. I'm sure there are some fans who are making this trip; it'd be a great experience and one that might not be repeated for a long time.



Monday, October 26, 2009

Baseball Playoffs - Not as Exciting as You Might Think

Here in Japan, the misnamed Climax Series' are finished, with both home teams winning in just 4 games (the home team is given a 1-game advantage in the best-of-7 series). Both the Giants and Fighters only lost once before achieving their 3rd victory, and they will now meet in the Nihon Series starting next Saturday. It should be a good series, and I'll be watching occasionally hoping to see the Giants lose. The midweek games are in the nearby Tokyo Dome and amazingly, ticket prices are reasonable. It's only 3,000 yen for a seat in the second deck. I'd consider going to a game, but with a start time of 6 pm, there's no chance to get there in time from work. One of the games is on a holiday, but I'm quite sure that tickets for that affair will be tough to get.

Over in the States, the Angels managed to take 2 out of 3 in L.A., thus extending their series. I was looking forward to watching game 6 Sunday morning, but rain in New York led to a postponement With the Phillies already through, it's now been 2 days without a playoff game (which happen to be two weekend days here) in what should be the most exciting time of the year. ESPN's Jim Caple writes a good article about how baseball has overextended the post-season in the name of ratings, so there's not much I can add on that topic.

But what I did want to write about was the overall excitement level of the playoffs and how it rarely lives up to the hype. Certainly there's always some great games in the playoffs, but more and more we are not seeing great series.

In MLB, there can be anywhere from 24 to 41 playoff games over the 3 rounds. Clearly the more series that go the distance, the more exciting things are. But recently, the total number of games played has been closer to the minimum as few series are stretched to the distance. Last season only one series went to 7 games and only 32 games were played. This was better than the previous season, when a mere 28 games were played, just 4 beyond the minimum (3 coming in the Boston-Cleveland 7-game ALCS). In 2005 and 2006, just 30 playoff games were contested each year.

Between 1995 (when the wild card system began) and 2000, only the 1997 playoffs saw more than 32 games. In fact, it was just during the four years between 2001 and 2004 that the MLB playoffs actually lived up to the hype. Both the 2001 and 2002 World Series saw 7-game thrillers, while in 2003 there were 38 out of a possible 41 games played, although the White Sox championship came in 6 games. Boston's incredible comeback over the Yankees was the highlight of 2004, which was tempered by their blowout of St. Louis.

So in 15 seasons since the introduction of the division series, at most 5 playoffs have been particularly memorable. I find this interesting because you would expect to have more closer series. Assuming two teams are evenly matched, a 5-game series would only be swept a quarter of the time. But in the 60 division series since 1995, 26 have ended in sweeps.

In a 7-game set, a 4-game sweep would happen 1 out of 8 times, while a 7 game set would occur about 31% of the time. In the championship series, these numbers are reflected accurately over the past 15 seasons, with only 4 sweeps and 8 series going the distance. But in the World Series, the opposite happens, with 5 of the 15 fall classics ending in a 4-0 whitewash, while only 3 have ended in a winner-take-all game 7.

What does this all mean? To me, it shows that teams making the playoffs are not equal (well, duh!), and in fact, there are still large differences between them. This year Minnesota, Boston, and St. Louis were not worthy playoff teams, being eliminated faster than the guy with the red shirt in Star Trek. The best teams in baseball (usually the top two in each league) are usually much better than those 2nd tier teams that sneak in. When they meet in the Championship Series, it's often a good battle. But by the time the World Series rolls around, one league is often so superior to the other that there's no excitement at all for fans of the sport as a whole. Let's see if the Yankees and Phillies can change that this season.

In Japan, there are now between 14 and 25 games in each playoff year. But it's far too early to determine if the Climax Series is a good addition or not. I'm not a fan of these extra games as it rewards mediocrity (like the Swallows this year) and extends the season into November, but I understand it provides excitement for fans of these teams. The Pacific League instituted the CS first in 2004, and promptly won three straight Japan Series over the Central League's representative, who had generally not played in two weeks. The CL felt that the long layoff was quite a disadvantage, so they began their own CS in 2007. Over the 9 combined series, the first place team has advanced 6 times, with the 2nd place team moving on the other 3 times (and in each case winning the Japan Series).

As is often the case in Japanese baseball, the powers that be continually tinker with the rules - back in 2004, the second series was a best-of-five, then in 2006 the one-game advantage was given to the first-place team, and finally the current system was instituted last year. So it's tough to make a strong statistical analysis on the merits of the Climax Series as a whole. Looking at this year's games, Yakult took Chunichi to a 3rd game, and the Fighters achieved a remarkable comeback over Rakuten with a 5-run ninth capped by ex-Expo Termel Sledge's grand slam, but other than that, there wasn't much to write home about.

So overall, I think that we are led to believe that the baseball playoffs on both sides of the Pacific are EXCITING and UNBELIEVABLE and [insert big hype word here]. But looking back, I think a lot of it is just that: hype. Yes, there are some excellent games, but for the culmination of the season, fans of the sport are often left wanting.



Sunday, October 25, 2009

Japan Top League Rugby Doubleheader - October 24, 2009

While watching the Junior Rugby World Championship a few months back, I picked up a schedule for Japan's rugby league, known as the Top League. There are 14 teams in this league, and they often play doubleheaders when two local teams are at home at the same time. Two games are always better than one, so I made note of a Saturday in October when Chichibunomiya Rugby Ground would host back-to-back matches and patiently waited for the day to arrive.

It was chilly in Tokyo yesterday, but this didn't stop about 5,000 rugby fans from making their way to the stadium to catch the Ricoh Black Rams hosting the Kyuden Voltex, followed by the Suntory Sungoliath taking on the Kubota Spears. As with most sports in Japan, teams are named after their corporate sponsors, so it's not immediately clear where they are based. Both Ricoh and Suntory are from Tokyo though, and were therefore the home teams.

I arrived about an hour before kickoff and made my way to the ticket window. It was only 1,500 yen for a ticket that allows you to sit most anywhere. There was assigned seating for 3,000 yen and special assigned seating for 4,000 yen, but I didn't see the point of spending the extra dough. Turns out the free seating is in the uncovered backstand, which is where I prefer to sit anyway, as you can get a seat right at field level.

The empty stadium an hour before kickoff

As I entered, I was handed a scoresheet with lineups for both games and was intrigued to find several world class players from the southern hemisphere playing on all sides. In particular, Stephen Larkham was the fullback for Ricoh, while George Gregan was the scrum half for Suntory.

George Gregan

As I took my seat next to the 22m line, I noticed that you can see the scoreboard at Jingu Stadium next door. There was another Tokyo Big 6 doubleheader happening at the same time, and I was able to follow the Meiji-Hosei game, which had just started. (Meiji won 5-1 with a 4-run ninth).

The Meiji-Hosei game was 14 minutes old and Hosei led 1-0

Game 1 - Kyuden Voltex 17 at Ricoh Black Rams 41

Kyuden is short for Kyushu Denryoku, the electric power company on the southern island of Kyushu. The Voltex were lying last in the table with no wins in their 6 games and averaging about 40 points against. Ricoh was 2-4, a decent record after winning promotion from the Japan East League. I was sitting in the first row near the 22 m line, which turned out to be right in the middle of the Voltex cheering section. Or I should say the 10 or so guys that came up from Fukuoka to cheer their team. They distributed flags to everyone around them and coached them on their cheers. Which weren't very difficult. The first cheer was "Go Go Kyuden" repeated 3 times. The second cheer was "Ike Ike Kyuden" (which means "Go Go Kyuden") repeated 3 times. That was it.

There weren't any real warmups before the game started; the Voltex kicker was practicing a few kicks but that was about it. The players then came out for the traditional pre-game pictures, and then the Voltex players ran over to their supporters and tossed T-shirts into the crowd. It seems like this is a tradition as the same thing happened in the following game.

Voltex got off to a quick start when Tim Atkinson ran in a try off a lineout just 2 minutes in. With the Josh Mann-Rea conversion it was 7-0 Kyuden, who extended their lead to 10 points with a penalty goal. Before the kick, the cheering section prepared their flags again and when the ball sailed through, they waved them heartily. It was certainly unusual for the Voltex to have a lead. The teams traded tries in the next 10 minutes and Voltex had a 17-7 advantage after just 20 minutes.

Voltex close to the goalline

Unfortunately there were still 60 minutes to play, and the rest of the game was controlled by Ricoh. After an offside penalty resulted in an easy 3 points for the Black Rams, Kyuden's Kota Kurogi was sent to the sin bin for 10 minutes after tripping Larkham. Ricoh's kicker, Yoshimitsu Kawano, made the penalty to narrow the gap to 4 points.

Ricoh didn't let the advantage escape, and man-of-the-match Kenichi Yokoyama scored the go-ahead try. Mann-Rea's conversion bounced in off the goal post, and Ricoh had the lead 20-17.

A scrum

Kyuden seemed deflated by the sudden turnaround, and they gave up a weak try on the halftime horn as their defense was incapable of tackling Ryo Kanazawa. From where I sat, it seemed like the defense had opened a huge gap and Kanazawa just scampered through untouched. After another conversion from Mann-Rea, it was 27-17 Ricoh at the break.

It was clear from the first half that Ricoh was the faster team and they were able to exploit the gaping holes that appeared in Kyuden's defense. Things were no different early in the second half as Kanazawa scored his third try of the game just 3 minutes after the interval, and the game was essentially over, with the Black Rams leading 34-17.

The Kyuden cheering section were still trying to inspire their team, shouting one of their two cheers during every stoppage, but their team was simply overmatched. Ricoh added a 5th try when Yusuke Nagae, a 5'7, 230 lb prop, grabbed the ball out of a scrum and scurried into the end zone. The conversion made it 41-17 and the last 20 minutes were devoid of much action, although Ricoh did attempt some long-range goals in rugby's equivalent of garbage time.

The Black Rams force the issue

After the game, the Kyuden supporters looked quite glum as their team seems destined for relegation. The players came over to thank the fans for their support and received some light applause, but the looks on their faces told it all. Another 40 points given up and they had a long flight back to Fukuoka.

Captain Masahiro Yoshinaga apologizes for his team's terrible defense

Game 2 - Kubota Spears 16 at Suntory Sungoliath 21

Suntory ranked 2nd in the league with 5 wins and a draw from their 6 matches, while Kubota were a reasonable 4-2. It promised to be a better game than the one previous and it wasn't disappointing. This time I was sitting in the Kubota cheering section, but they didn't have any flags, just two guys who would occasionally shout "Go Go Kubota" or something similar. Not a lot of creativity on display here. As Suntory is a beer maker, I would cheer for them quietly.

In the 4th minute, Japanese national player Hirotoki Onozawa followed up a kick and ran the ball in to open the scoring. The conversion was missed but Suntory were up 5-0. The Spears replied with a lucky play. When Suntory blocked a kick, the ball was quickly recovered by Kubota, who managed to get it to lock Kota Suzuki who showed off surprising speed to tie the game. The successful conversion gave Kubota a 7-5 lead.

The next 15 minutes saw both teams struggling to score, and there were a lot of stoppages and penalties awarded. I had trouble following the play because the referee's jersey was nearly the same colour as those sported by the Spears. I couldn't see many of the penalties, but Suntory had two penalty goals to Kubota's 1, and led 11-10 with a minute to go in the half. That's when the Spears' Shane Drahm booted a great drop goal to restore his side's two-point lead just as the half ended.

I decided to move seats at halftime, to try to get a different view of the game. As the second half began, the referee came out wearing a bright pink shirt - it was clear that I wasn't the only one who had difficulty following the play.


The second half was characterized by strong defense on both sides. In particular, the Spears were able to withstand multiple challenges at their goalline. It seemed like Suntory held the ball for most of the first 10 minutes and constantly pushed Kubota's defense. Several penalties were awarded, but Suntory elected to kick out of bounds for field position, rather than take the 3 points. But Kubota's backline held and eventually got the ball out of trouble.

The Sungoliath are not able to score here - note the referee's garish garb

On Sungoliath's next trip down though, the Spears were not as fortunate as Michael Broadhurst was sin binned for repeated infringments. Suntory kept up the pressure with the advantage, but were still unable to cross the line. I was impressed with Kubota's ability to stand strong while one man down, but with just a minute or so left in the suspension, Suntory's Shinya Makabe took the ball and eluded two defenders, crossing the line to give his team an 18-13 lead after the conversion.

Makabe with the winning try

Despite Kubota having a good ability to stretch the field with some great passing, they could not break down the Suntory defense. Suntory eventually added another penalty goal to make the game 21-13 with 6 minutes left. Things looked over, but Kubota did not give up, adding their own penalty to reduce the deficit to 5 with just two minutes left.

The Spears regained possession in the last minute and tried a daring play, kicking the ball down the sideline in the hopes that a player in front could pick it up and run it in for the try. But Suntory's Wayne Van Heerden grabbed the ball after a tricky bounce and crawled toward the sideline in a desperate attempt to get out of bounds and end the game. I couldn't see clearly what was happening as it was at the other end of the field but apparently he made it out as the referee blew the whistle. Suntory was victorious 21-16 but missed out on bonus points by only scoring two tries.

Overall Thoughts

These games transpired as expected. The Voltex defense was porous and they were blown out, while Suntory won a close affair. In both games, it was a 10-minute suspension that had a large part to play in the final outcome.

I enjoyed watching two games and getting a different feeling for each team's strategy and system. It's great to be able to sit so close to the action without a screen disrupting the view, which is my chief complaint about baseball here. There were only about 5,000 fans in attendance, which shows that the Top League still has a way to go to when compared to the J League. But with the 2019 Rugby World Cup coming to Japan, as well as rugby now an Olympic sport, the Top League should be increasing in popularity. If you live in Japan, I urge you to check out a game near you (the schedule is only in Japanese though).

A good crowd

Wallabies Watched

Next week sees the Australian and New Zealand national teams doing battle in the 4th test of the 2009 Bledisoe Cup. It's a meaningless match as the Kiwi's have retained the trophy with 3 wins so far, but it's a great way to give fans in Japan a chance to see two world-class teams. Tickets are overpriced, so I won't be going, but I mention it here as the Wallabies were in attendance yesterday. After the game, they were signing autographs and fraternizing with the fans, which was great to see. I don't know many of the players by sight as I can't watch many of their games, but they seemed to be enjoying themselves. Hope that they can put up a good fight next week and give Japanese rugby fans a game to remember.

Next up

I was hoping to go to see Kawasaki (now in first place in the J League) today hosting Sanfrecce Hiroshima, but the weather is not promising. Next week I've planned a return trip to Omiya to see an Emperor's cup game in Nack 5 Stadium. Then it's the Nabisco Cup on November 3rd (although tickets are sold out, so it's unlikely I'll get in), the AFC Champions League Final on November 7 (Nagoya lost 6-2 to Al Ittihad in their first leg, so it's doubtful they'll make it). After that, I'll try to see a couple more Frontale games as the season winds down. As always, updates will be posted here.



Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tokyo Big 6 Baseball - October 17, 2009

I wrote about university baseball a couple of weeks ago when I saw a couple of Tohto University League games. Yesterday I went to watch the much more famous league: the Tokyo Big 6 University League. There are six large, famous schools in the Tokyo area: Hosei, Keio, Meiji, Rikkyo, Tokyo, and Waseda; and they've competed in this league since 1925. There are two seasons annually, one in the spring and one in the fall. Each team plays a best-of-3 series against each other team and the team with the most series wins is the champion for that season.

What's interesting is the discrepancy between the historical results of the schools. Four of them (Hosei, Keio, Meiji, and Waseda) have well over 1,000 wins and at least 30 championships (Hosei leads with 42, including the last one in the spring of this year), while Rikkyo has only 12 titles, the last coming a decade ago. This leaves poor Tokyo. They sport well over a thousand losses, and have never won a title. It's amazing that such futility can exist for 85 years unabated, especially when there are only 6 teams involved. This year is no different, as Tokyo has lost all 8 starts, including blowout scores of 12-2, 18-0, and 13-1.

So it made sense to find a weekend when Tokyo wasn't playing so I'd be more likely to see two competitive games. And that was this weekend, with defending champ Hosei taking on current leader Waseda, followed by Meiji battling Keio.

Game 1 Waseda 3- Hosei 3 (12 innings)

I arrived at the stadium about an hour before the 11am start and saw a line-up for the "shitei seki" which are tickets with assigned seat numbers. I wanted to sit behind the plate for the first game, so bought one of these at 1,300 yen and headed in. It was still early, so there weren't many fans there yet, but the cheering sections for each school were setting up and practicing their routines.

I watched both teams run BP with two batting cages - I guess there are so many players on the roster that they need two cages to get everyone their pre-game swings. The crowd slowly filled up and by game time, the free seating sections in the infield looked quite packed, although there were still plenty of seats in my area. There were also people sitting in the outfield, but they usually had several rows to themselves as you can see below. The announced crowd was 16,000, which was substantially larger than the 300 or so that watched the Tohto games.

One batting cage for lefties and one for righties.

Starting for Waseda was Yuki Saito, who led his high school to the Koshien championship 3 years ago. He's well known in Japan and is certainly the reason many of these fans are here.

In the bottom of the second, with the game still scoreless, Saito gave up a 2-out triple to Kento Kameda (shown below), a ball that just missed being a home run. After hitting first baseman Yuuhei Ishikawa, he got Takuya Hiromoto to ground back to him to end the threat. And that was the story of Saito today: giving up baserunners but always bearing down to get out of the inning, including leaving the bases loaded in the 6th.

Meanwhile, Saito was also doing it with the bat. After singling in the 3rd (pictured below), he scored on a Hiroki Matsunaga double. In the fifth he singled with two out, advancing to third on Hiroki Kojima's single while Kojima moved to second on the throw. This brought Matsunaga back to the plate, and he singled in both runs to give Waseda a 3-0 lead.

In the 7th, however, things fell apart for Saito on the mound. A leadoff single by Hiromoto was followed by a run-scoring double from pinch-hitter Yo Sasaki. Hiroshi Taki followed with an RBI single of his own, and Saito was replaced by Tatsuya Ohishi. Despite all the hype for Saito, the stats show Ohishi to be a better pitcher, at least this season. His ERA is now 0.41 and he's struck out 27 in 22 innings (Saito by comparison has 27 Ks in 29 innings and a 2.79 ERA). Ohishi seems to always relieve Saito, so with these two on the hill, it's no wonder that Waseda wins the majority of their games.

The first batter Ohishi faced sacrificed and then Ryo Imai struck out. It looked like Waseda might escape with the lead, but singles from Masatoshi Matsumoto and Shingo Kamegai brought home the tying run, which was charged to Saito. Kamegai was injured on the play at first and had to be helped off the field. As for Saito, in the 6+ innings he threw, he faced 28 batters, allowing 10 of them to reach. So it wasn't an outstanding performance by him. I noticed though that he was very good at mixing up his pitches and usually had batters guessing. A lot of hits were of the seeing-eye variety, and it was just the one bad inning that cost him the win.

Saito throws

Now tied at 3, Waseda's offense was unable to do anything in the 8th. Hosei's Ishikawa then led off with a double and was quickly sacrificed to third. This was the chance to win the game, but Sasaki grounded out on a great play by first baseman Hironobu Hara, who threw to second baseman Takashi Gotoh covering while managing to keep Ishikawa on third. Taki then flew out to end the threat. The 9th inning was scoreless, and we were heading for extra innings.

In this league, they play no more than 12 innings as they are usually playing 2 games a day. Neither team managed much in the 10th, but in the 11th Waseda had back-to-back singles with 1 out and the top of the order coming up. But Kojima struck out against reliever Kohei Nishi and Matsunaga flew out to center to finish the frame. Neither team mustered much offense the rest of the way and the final was 3-3, played in 3:28. Ohishi finished with 6 innings, giving up 6 hits but no walks and striking out 4. Despite allowing the inherited run to score, that's big-time quality relief and this guy will be very helpful to whichever team drafts him.

This could have been a great game except for all the squandered chances. Ties suck in baseball (no winning and losing pitchers for one) and I was a bit disappointed that Hosei couldn't pull out the comeback or that Waseda couldn't capitalize in their extra innings. Still, these two teams seem to be the class of the league right now, taking 8 out of the last 9 titles between them. This was a critical game and Hosei pulled out all the stops,using 21 players out of their roster of 25 in this game. Waseda only used 12 so I wonder if their bench is not so strong.

With the tie, there is now a game on Monday afternoon. Which I can't go to. Which sucks. Bloody work. It's a critical game in the title chase and Saito should get the start, so if you are in Tokyo and have nothing to do on Monday afternoon, you should head out to Jingu to watch. (BTW, Hosei won 1-0 today, so I'm not sure what happens if Waseda wins tomorrow, do they have a 4th game on Tuesday or some other tiebreaker? Also, Meiji defeated Keio in their Sunday game, so there's two games tomorrow).

Game 2 Meiji 3- Keio 8

Hayata Itoh swings

I was quite tired after that first game and decided to move around the stadium for the second game, which was much less crowded. Keio was standing second in the league at 5-2, with Meiji just a game back at 4-3. But Keio had ace Nobuaki Nakabayashi starting; he was 3rd in the league in ERA with a 4-1 record. I didn't keep score, so can't give details but Meiji started quickly plating 3 runs on 4 hits in their first two innings off Nakabayahi. But Meiji starter Gota Nanba couldn't hold the lead as Keio tied it in their half of the second. Another run in the fourth and then 4 more in the fifth, including 2 on bases-loaded walks, gave Keio a 5-run lead and sent most of the Meiji faithful packing. Nakabayshi did not yield another hit through 6 innings and his bullpen had no trouble keeping Meiji off the board as the game ended 8-3. The final couple of innings were played in a light drizzle, which really cleared out the stadium. Not a memorable game.

Keio's Ryosuke Yamamoto looks bad striking out here

I spent some time here watching the Meiji cheering section and was impressed with their energy. Sadly they were unable to impart some of it to their players, who could not get anything going after the second inning. But it was really Nakabayashi who was the story of the game, going 6 strong innings for the victory. The lanky lefty leads the league with 5 wins and now sports a tidy 2.03 ERA. A Google Search shows that Hanshin and Chiba might be interested in drafting him next week (the draft is to be held on October 29th) so that might be interesting. Wonder if he'll be playing up in Urawa next season.

All smiles early on

Overall thoughts

I would like to see more of these games but it really takes up your whole day. I was in the ballpark from 10-6, which is almost as bad as a work day. Of course, most of the time, the games are much shorter, often coming in just over 2 hours. The quality of ball is very good and the fans are really into it, so it's a fun experience, but can be quite tiring if you stay for both games. It's also interesting to see players who are going to be drafted; there's a chance I'll see them in the minors next year.

In fact, it's much easier to follow players here in Japan, where there's so much baseball in Tokyo and on TV that you can see the same guy in high school, college, the minors, and finally the majors. Contrast that with the States, where a player can crisscross the country as he moves up the minor league chain. David Cooper, the Jays first-round pick in 2008, spent last season in Auburn, NY, Lansing, MI, and Dunedin FL. This year he played for New Hampshire and he'll probably be out in Las Vegas next season. Tough to follow him in person unless you've got a lot of time and money. So if tracking players and watching them develop is your thing, Tokyo might be the best place to be.

A new pet peeve

Finally, one tiny note about some new behavior that drives me nuts. It used to be sliding into first, but that seems to be disappearing. Then it was those fake pickoffs to third and then first. Only saw that twice yesterday. So just when it looked like I could enjoy baseball again without some petty and trivial annoyance, catchers have gotten into the act. The new king of bothersome player actions is: catchers asking umpires to ask the base umps on check swings.

Every time the batter even nudged the bat from this shoulder, the catcher would twirl his hand and point down the line at the base umpire. The plate ump would agreeably ask the base ump to make the call and every single time, it was no swing. I mean these were not close calls. Not one time did I think "Oh yeah, he swung there". I was surprised that the umpire didn't tell the catchers to stop it - I'll call the game, you play the game. I counted at least a dozen times it happened and each time I wondered how the catcher thought it was even close. Memo to catchers everywhere: Just stop it!

Next up

That's probably it for baseball for me this season. There's a combined college and high-school tournament coming up in mid-November which should be entertaining, but also quite chilly, so I'm not sure if I'll go yet. There's also an exhibition game between the under-26 NPB all-stars and the college all-stars, but that's on a long weekend when I hope to be far away from Tokyo.

Next weekend I'll catch some Top League Rugby games and the following week sees two championship soccer games plus a few more Kawasaki Frontale games as they run for the J League title. So stay tuned for reports on those games and other goings on in the sporting world. Until then, enjoy the playoffs!



Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Playoff Thoughts Here and There

It’s been a busy two weeks for me with the new job, friends visiting, and playing in a one-day ball hockey tournament. I haven’t had much time to watch the games on TV never mind go to one live. Fortunately things are settling back into a routine now, so I should be able to get to some upcoming college ball games and Top League Rugby.

Meanwhile, the regular season has finally ended here in Japan. I say finally because the NPB continues to play games long after the original schedule finishes. This is due to the large number of rainouts during the season; many of these postponed games are not made up during the schedule. In MLB, they try to play a doubleheader as soon as possible or find a date where each team has a day off and schedule the make-up game then. Rainouts near the end of the season with two eliminated teams are just cancelled outright, as happened to a Pirates-Cubs game this year. No matter what, the season must finish by the first Sunday in October so the playoffs can begin on time.

Here in Japan, there are no doubleheaders and teams don’t give up their off days. The actual schedule includes make-up dates in advance, but those are specified for two teams and come after a series between the two. For example, if Chunichi is visiting Yakult on Tuesday and Wednesday, the schedule may include a potential make-up game for these two teams. If either of the first two games is rained out, it can then be played on Thursday. Even then, the weather here can be atrocious at times, with consecutive rainouts not an uncommon situation. It’s not possible to reschedule all these games during the regular season, so the NPB keeps a 2-week window after it ends and schedules the make-up games for this time. Obviously, teams with domes have fewer rainouts, and so as the season winds down, one team may have 8 games left while another only has 2. This isn’t much of an issue, until these teams are vying for a playoff spot. It’s not quite the same as a pennant race when one team has so many games left and the other doesn't. This scenario was played out somewhat this season when Yakult and Hanshin waged the ugliest playoff race you’ll be likely to see.

With the Giants and Dragons comfortably taking the top two spots in the Central League, the 3rd and final Climax series berth was contested between 3 teams, each sporting under .500 records. When the regular season ended, Hanshin led Yakult by 1/2 game, with Hiroshima a further 2 games behind. But Yakult had 9 games remaining compared to only 5 for the Tigers and 6 for the Carp. So it was theirs for the taking. After splitting their first 4 make-up games (including a critical win over Hanshin), the Swallows still trailed by a 1/2 game. Fortunately they had 2 home games against the Tigers so there was some excitement as the season wound down (although not for Hiroshima, who had fallen out of contention - more on that later).

Amazingly, Yakult won both of their games and took 3rd place with two games to spare. They ended the season on a 5-game streak, giving hope to Swallows fans everywhere. It's still ugly though, as they finished 1 game under .500 (teams that lose more than they win should not be in the playoffs - this ain't the old-style NHL here), but at least they won their last few games to save some face. They now travel to Nagoya to take on Chunichi this weekend with the winner advancing to play the Giants.

Things were quite interesting in the Pacific League too, where Rakuten surprised many with a 2nd place finish and their first-ever playoff berth. They’ll host Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in the first round, with the winner moving on to Hokkaido to battle the Nippon Ham Fighters. I’ll be cheering for the Golden Eagles, as I like to see different teams have a chance to celebrate.

That brings me back to Hiroshima. With Rakuten now making the playoffs, only the Carp are left as the only team to have missed the post-season during my 13 years in Japan. Which is really sad when you consider Rakuten has only been around for 5 seasons. When I moved here, there were a good number of different league champions in the first few years and I used to think that I'd stay until each team won their league. When the Climax Series was introduced, I amended that caveat so that I'd leave after each team made the playoffs. Amazingly, the Carp (no coincidence that those letters also spell crap) have yet to do so, and therefore I remain here. Better luck next year!

Game Times Update

I've mentioned before how the average game in Japan takes about 20 minutes longer than that in the States. The NPB has been trying to shorten games, but not with much success. The average 9 inning game took 3:08 and the average game took 3:13 overall. I wish I could easily obtain pitch stats for both leagues somewhere to do a bit of analysis. But if I had to make sweeping generalizations, I think that the batters in Japan work the count more and see more pitches, while pitchers here aren't as aggressive, working the corners rather than challenging the batter. So I think there may be a few more pitches in the average game in Japan. As well, I think pitchers here might take longer between pitches - not enough that you'd notice on a pitch-to-pitch basis but enough to add a few minutes to the game. Whatever the case, it's not as prevalent in the other leagues, so I'd like to think the NPB can still achieve their goal.

MLB Playoffs

Ooops. I blinked and missed the divisional series. It always surprises me how quickly a team can be eliminated after the long 162-game season. It doesn’t seem fair that you play so many games for such a long time and then boom, you’re done after 3 playoff games. But I can’t see a better way to do it, other than to extend the series to a best-of-7 format. Which isn't going to happen, because that would push the World Series to November. I'm sure MLB wouldn't allow that, right?
For the Championship Series, it’d be nice to see the Angels and Dodgers win, if only because the Phillies were there last year and the Yankees are the Yankees. But it’s all big-market teams now, so it's not that exciting to me. Of course, I'm sure that MLB and Fox are salivating over the possibility of a Yankees-Dodgers World Series. But I'm still hoping for the Blue Jays and the Expos.

*Update*: The first game of the NLCS took an astounding 4:02. Yeah, it's the playoffs, but still, that's just silly. No more complaining about game times in Japan.

Next Up

This weekend I'll see a couple of Big 6 games to finish my baseball season. Next weekend I'll check out some top league rugby. After that we've got some soccer with the Nabisco Cup, AFC Champions League, and maybe some Emperor's Cup action. I'm hoping now for a trip back home in January, and will let you know all about it after it's booked.



Sunday, October 4, 2009

Dragons defeat Giants to win the Farm League Championship

Yesterday saw the one-game playoff between Eastern League champs Yomiuri Giants and Western League winners Chunichi Dragons take place in Toyama. In front of 14,150 fans, the Dragons held the Giants to 2 hits and won 2-0.

The Giants used Yuya Kubo as their starter in what I can only guess was a cynical bid to win the game. Kubo seems to have good numbers with the big club over the past 6 seasons, and he was sent down most recently on September 28th after the baby Giants had finished their season. So I suspect he was sent down just to pitch in this game.

Kubo did well, going the full 9 innings, giving up only 6 hits, but Chunichi's pitchers were slightly better. Junki Ito gave up two hits and 5 walks through 5 1/3 but left with the bases loaded and a 1-0 lead. Yoshihiro Suzuki, another pitcher with plenty of top league experience, came in and got two outs to keep the Giants from scoring in the 6th. Suzuki and two other relievers were then perfect the rest of the way and a pinch-hit homer from veteran Kazuki Inoue added an insurance run to give the Dragons the 2-0 victory.

Glad to see the Giants lose and hoping that their big-league team suffers the same fate in the upcoming Climax Series. Also good to see over 14,000 fans there and now I'm wondering if Toyama could support a full-time minor-league (or even NPB) club? Or was this just because it was the Giants playing?



Saturday, October 3, 2009

Kawasaki knocked out of the AFC Champions League

With a 2-1 victory at home in the first leg, Kawasaki Frontale travelled to Nagoya needing only a draw to advance to the semifinals in AFC Champions League action. Unfortunately, they weren't up to the task, giving up 2 first-half goals to fall behind 3-2 in the aggregate. Chong Tese got one back before the end of the half.

With no goals for most of the second half, it looked like extra time would decide things, but Joshua Kennedy scored a late marker to give Grampus a 3-1 victory and the 4-3 aggregate to send them on to the next round. They will play Saudi side Al Ittihad in the semifinals. The other match features Korean club Pohang Steelers against Umm-Salal. The semi-finals are played on October 21st and 28th.

I'm a bit disappointed that Frontale is out; I was hoping to see a semi-final game down in Todoroki but it's not going to happen. I'll still go to the championship game regardless of who is playing, but certainly having Nagoya in the final will make it more interesting for Japanese soccer fans.