Friday, October 13, 2006

Pacific League Playoffs, Second Stage, Game Two - Shinjo-rarenai!

(This post is meant to be a more coherent, less Fighters-fangirl, more "article-style" post than the Game Two Liveblogging was.)

I have no idea whether I'm going to get busted by Yahoo for this, but I took a whole bunch of screen captures during the game yesterday. They are many and varied, some of game action, some of the post-game celebration and press conference, etc, so if you didn't get to see the game, enjoy.

Anyway, the Nippon Ham Fighters won the Pacific League Pennant last night, for real this time.

(Photo from Jiji Press via Yahoo Sports)

Fighters 1, Hawks 0 (Box Score)

For the second time within a week, we were treated to an intense playoff pitching duel. Yet again, it involved Kazumi Saitoh, and yet again, he suffered a heartbreaking 1-0 loss when his team could not score but a single run for him.

Tomoya Yagi matched him inning for inning, zero for zero, as the evening went on.

Even when teams could put runners on, they couldn't keep them there. Kensuke Tanaka singled in the first, but was erased by a double play. Nobuhiko Matsunaka singled in the second, but was also erased by a double play. Tadaatsu Nakazawa managed a single in the third inning and was bunted to second, but was then picked off the base in a beautiful play by Yagi and Tanaka. Makoto Kaneko managed a single in the Fighters' half of the third, and was left on base as Hichori Morimoto popped out.

The top of the fourth inning saw some craziness when Naoyuki Ohmura bunted in front of the plate and dashed for first. Catcher Shinya Tsuruoka fielded the ball, ducking a charging Naoto Inada, and throwing to first a split second ahead of Ohmura. The first base coach made a "safe" sign with his arms but the umpire called Ohmura out, and the game stopped for several minutes as acting manager Moriwaki came out to argue, but the umpires stuck to their call.

The top of the fifth inning saw the Hawks on the wrong side of a call yet again. After Julio Zuleta reached base on a throwing error by Naoto Inada, he somehow failed to run on a wild pitch to Jolbert Cabrera. When Cabrera struck out, suddenly Zuleta broke for second, and Tsuruoka threw him out. Kensuke Tanaka leaned down to make the tag, and Zuleta slid into the base hard, kicking Tanaka's glove and knocking the ball loose. First he was called safe, but then the umpires reconvened and reversed the call. In all honesty, if Zuleta had just run on the wild pitch, it wouldn't have been an issue.

The next few innings went by with a few scattered runners. The first walk didn't even occur until Jolbert Cabrera watched four balls go by in the top of the 8th. Hichori Morimoto managed to catch all three outs in the top of the 9th. Yagi threw an incredible 103 pitches through the 9 innings, striking out 4, giving up 3 hits.

The bottom of the 9th began with Kazumi Saitoh, already up to 111 pitches, walking Hichori Morimoto. Playing for one run at this point, Kensuke Tanaka bunted him to second base, this being only the second time in the game the Fighters had a baserunner with less than two outs. With a runner in scoring position and the game on the line, Michihiro Ogasawara is understandably intentionally walked. Fernando Seguignol strikes out, and it's down to Atsunori Inaba to do something to win the game or see it go into extra innings.

Inaba hits a grounder up the middle. Nakazawa dives for the ball and stops it, throwing to second to get the force out on Ogasawara. But Ogasawara slides into the base just ahead of the throw and is called safe. In the meantime, Hichori Morimoto has rounded third and is heading home, and by the time shortstop Munenori Kawasaki throws to the plate, Hichori slides in safe and the Fighters win the game 1-0!

Final moment
(Picture from the Jiji Press. Tsuyoshi Shinjo's the guy jumping up jubilantly in the background, Hichori Morimoto is the one down on one knee with the green armbands, Naoki Matoba is the Hawks catcher and Kazumi Saitoh is the Hawks pitcher, both of whom are in a state of shock.)

Shinjo, who had been in the on-deck circle behind Inaba in the batting order, nearly explodes with joy, and soon the rest of the team comes out and there's a big pileup of a celebration. Saitoh is in such a state of shock that he has to be carried off the field by Cabrera and Zuleta, and even Matoba doesn't move for a minute or so while the Fighters are running around celebrating.

Trey Hillman, in his interview as the champion manager, keeps saying in Japanese, "Shinjirarenai". ("I can't believe it.")

The Fighters, who haven't played in a Japan Series at all since 1981 -- before many of their recent players were even born -- will play against the Central League champion Chunichi Dragons, who have been in the fray as recently as 2004, but who have not actually won a Japan Series since 1954. The Fighters haven't won since 1962, when they were still called the Toei Flyers. This should be a great series if for nothing other than the historical implications.

Kazumi Saitoh threw 127 pitches in 8.2 innings, striking out 8, walking 2 (one intentionally), and gave up 5 hits, and only that one run. You'd think that normally a performance like that would be pretty good, but when your team is somewhat devoid of people who can actually hit a baseball with a bat, you can only do so much. A frightening thing about Saitoh this season is that even in his 7 losses, counting the postseason, his ERA is a mere 2.57. The Hawks as a team had a .697 OPS, tied with Lotte, and their 82 home runs were second-lowest in the league, only to Rakuten. They mostly made it to the postseason on the strength of their pitching staff, which led the Pacific League in WHIP at 1.22 and had the second-lowest ERA at 3.13. (Stats from here.)

What really happened in the playoffs here is that the Hawks' pitching managed to neutralize the Lions' batting for the most part, and their stronger bats preyed on the Seibu non-Matsuzaka pitchers, but the Fighters were simply stronger than them in both categories. Looking at the lineups side by side, you see that the Hawks had legitimate batters in Kawasaki, Ohmura, Matsunaka, and Zuleta. But nobody else they played in these games was really reliable to do much with a bat in their hands. Inamine as DH? Nakazawa, Ide, Matoba, Yamazaki as starters? It's clear that the organization needs to get a real third baseman and someone at second base who can hit a little, even if you can't really fault them for having a black hole in the lineup for the catcher. Matoba's a good guy who handles the pitchers well and is decent defensively, so I won't fault him there. But he's no Johjima. I'd trust the Fighters bottom-of-the-lineup guys a lot more than I'd trust the Hawks guys to come through with anything (and indeed, Fighters 9-spotter Makoto Kaneko was 3-for-7 with an RBI in this series).

Or, you could say that what really happened is that the playoff rules changed to give the 1st place team a one-game advantage in Second Stage, a change brought about partially because the Hawks had two consecutive first-place finishes without making it to the Japan Series. It really came back to bite them in this case, because without that change, they'd still have a chance now.

Or, you could be like Gary and suggest that Trey Hillman just out-managed everyone, which is also definitely possible. Having manager Sadaharu Oh go into the hospital with stomach cancer couldn't have been easy on the Hawks this year.

Anyway, it's on to the Fighters-Dragons Japan Series next, where half of the country will be scratching their head and going "Who are these guys?" The schedule is up here, and the first game will be Saturday the 21st, at the Nagoya Dome at 6pm Japan time, or 2am Seattle time. ドラゴンズよ、かかってこい!

No comments: