First thing I have to do is congratulate Jingu on its makeover. I thought at first it was just the cool new screen in place, but when I went home and looked at old pictures I realized that they seriously changed a lot -- the field surface, the dirt between the basepaths, and I just read that they moved the fences back from 91m in the corners to 101m. (This didn't stop Mikinori Katoh from giving up three home runs anyway, but I'll get to that in a bit.) Seriously, though, contrast and compare these pictures I've taken:
Meiji Jingu Stadium, March 9, 2008
Meiji Jingu Stadium, October 22, 2007
(Hosei University vs. Meiji University)
Even with the difference in view between third base and first base, you can tell it's seriously changed. And oh, the screen -- it's so much nicer now:
Final scoreboard, March 9, 2008
Final scoreboard and hero interview, September 17, 2007
Masao Kida pitching change, March 9, 2008
(I wasn't just bringing that up to remember that awesome game where I cheered for Morino until my lungs fell out and then he was game hero. Honest. Which reminds me that Morino broke his left-hand middle finger a few weeks ago and might not make it back in time for Opening Day and I am pretty much freaking out about that. The same thing happened two years ago when he broke his right pinky and had to start the season in ni-gun. Ganbare, Dragonbutt. You're still MY hero.)
I went to this game with Chris, who posts to the japanesebaseball.com forums from time to time as "hillsy", and his wife Rachel. They were kind enough to bring me Velveeta Shells & Cheese, which is the kind of crazy thing you request from people after you've been living in Japan too long. They were also kind enough to put up with me babbling out my brain about every single person on the field. (Perhaps the moment I should have realized I was getting carried away was when I started explaining the backstory of Yakult's PITCHING COACH. "Okay, so the guy on the mound is Masao Kida. He used to be on the Mariners. And then the coach is Daisuke Araki. He was a big Koshien star in highschool, and Daisuke Matsuzaka is named after him, and that's probably going to be more of a legacy for him than his own pitching career... umm... anyway...")
We got into seats around 12:30pm, and over the loudspeakers they announced the starting pitchers: Kazuhisa Ishii (#61) for Seibu, and Mikinori Katoh (#16) for Yakult. There was a lot of cheering all around for this; Yakult fans were overjoyed to see former Swallows pitcher Ishii, and also overjoyed to see new young hotshot Katoh. The irony of having the former lefty #16 facing the current lefty #16 was not lost on this crowd, I hope.
To me, the strange part was that last time I saw a game at Jingu, Mikinori Katoh was a starting pitcher, for Keio University during the Waseda-Keio deathmatch (and I saw him pitch a 12-inning complete game shutout). The last time I saw a Swallows game at Jingu, Kazuhisa Ishii was the starting pitcher as well. I think he's just following me around.
Uh, anyway, so I brought my camera to Jingu, and all I got was this lousy left-handed kid warming up:
Katoh looked pretty good for the first inning, although he almost took a grounder in the arm off Seibu leadoff batter Yasuyuki Kataoka, who was shortly thereafter retired on a double play.
The Swallows even got a lead in their half of the first inning. Keizo Kawashima, who I used to adore on the Fighters, was leading off for the Swallows. ("KEIZOOOOOO!" I shouted, "WHY DID YOU CUT YOUR HAIR?") Kawashima hit a weak grounder up the left side which just rolled up the line and somehow managed to stay fair, so both sides started off the game with an infield single. Hiroyasu Tanaka, doing what EVERY second baseman named Tanaka does best, laid down a sac bunt after that, except Kataoka, covering first, had to jump to get the ball, and thus both batters were safe. Norichika Aoki was DH for this game ("What's a shimeidasha?" "It means designated hitter. I didn't know that before I moved here either."), but he didn't do much of anything in this game, starting off with a popup to short. But Adam Riggs, wearing high socks, hit a solid single to left field, scoring Kawashima. 1-0.
("Do you have an umbrella?" I asked Rachel. "No, why?" "Well, get out your camera..." I said, as the strains of Tokyo Ondo started and the umbrellas started dancing all around us.)
Guiel popped out to second after that, and Shinya "Captain Japan" Miyamoto walked the bases loaded, but then Yasushi Iihara struck out to end the inning.
Before you were even aware that the second inning had started, Craig Brazell launched a ball into the right-field bleachers. BLAM. 1-1. Third baseman Takeya Nakamura, who I think is on a grand quest to look like Norihiro Nakamura, singled, and veteran Akira Etoh walked. After a mound conference, they tried to pick Nakamura off second base unsuccessfully, and then Takayama sac bunted the runners to 2nd and 3rd, so catcher Tooru Hosokawa could hit a sac fly to right, and even Nakamura could lumber home on Guiel's throw. 2-1. Kenta Matsusaka, who has been ON FIRE this pre-season, continued flaming with a single to left, scoring Etoh. 3-1. Of course, he got caught stealing a few pitches later. I don't particularly care for Seibu on general principle, but I kind of hope this Matsusaka kid succeeds just because it amused me to no end when he introduced himself on a TV show the other day like "Hi, I'm Seibu's Matsusaka. Yes, same kanji as that other guy. No, I'm not a pitcher. Sorry."
Fukukawa led off with a pop-up to first or second, depending on who you ask (but apparently you should ask Kataoka). Then Ryuuji Miyade came to bat! I love Miyade, he's so damn tall. Miyade actually got a hit, a single to right. Yay! But then during Kawashima's at-bat, either a hit-and-run got screwed up, or Miyade missed a signal, or something, but either way he totally got picked off trying to steal second. Err, okay. But Kawashima singled and so did Hiroyasu Tanaka. If Miyade hadn't gotten caught, it would have been one more run scored and one less out, but alas, when Norichika Aoki struck out called -- on what looked like a ball almost aimed at his neck -- the inning ended, with no runs scored.
Katoh imploded in the 3rd inning. Pop out, walk, Nakajima home run (5-1), single, groundout, Etoh home run (7-1), single, popout. Ouch. Nakajima's home run barely cleared the wall in right field, but it was legit, moreso counting that the wall had recently been moved back 10 meters.
Swallows 3rd inning: Groundout. Groundout. Groundout with Kataoka making a fantastic play. Whatever.
Kenta Matsusaka led off the 4th with a bounding double to left field ("Dammit Miyade!" I yelled), advanced on a Kataoka grounder and scored on a Tomoaki Satoh single. 8-1. Inning ended with Katoh neatly fielding a Nakajima grounder back to the mound. And even with Fukukawa walking and Keizo Kawashima getting his THIRD single of the day, the Swallows didn't manage anything in their half of the inning. Katoh came out, his line being 4 innings pitched, 8 earned runs, 10 hits, 2 walks, 1 strikeout, 3 home runs. Ouch.
Former Orix and late of the Fighters pitcher Jun Hagiwara pitched the 5th for Yakult, and naturally he still has no idea where he's throwing the ball, nearly beheading Nakamura, but besides walking Etoh the rest of the inning was scattered popouts. Ishii allowed a single to Guiel and a double to Miyamoto but that was it as he completed 5 innings with a much more respectable line than his counterpart: 1 earned run, 8 hits, 2 walks, 5 strikeouts.
At this point the parade of one-inning pitchers getting game time took place. Yakult followed Hagiwara with Masao Kida!!! and then with crazy pudgy bespectacled lefty sidearmer Masaru Satoh, and then former Fighters reliever Takahiko Oshimoto, before handing over the last inning to fireballer Ryota Igarashi, who still could use a haircut. Seibu countered with two innings out of Minoru Yamagishi, one from Koji Mitsui, and then the last inning from former Chunichi setup man Shinya Okamoto.
(Since it was Okamoto following Oshimoto I was just like "Oh, stab me in the heart now, why don't you." Combine that with the way I had been singing the chance music for Yakult, and Rachel asked, "I thought you weren't cheering for a team?" "Well, no, technically I don't really care about Yakult or Seibu, but I mean, we're sitting on the Yakult side, I'm wearing my Furuta shirt, and most of Yakult's team now is guys I used to like on OTHER teams...")
Fast-forward to the bottom of the 7th. Yamagishi had looked good in the 6th, but he started off the 7th by walking Hiroyasu Tanaka and ex-Giant Takayuki Saitoh. Adam Riggs naturally hit into a 6-3 double play, but with Hiroyasu on third, former SEIBU player Kazuki Fukuchi pulled off a crazy squeeze up the left side which rolled up the line but stayed fair for Hiroyasu to score. (Homefield advantage of this new Jingu turf? 8-2.)
In the bottom of the 8th, Tomohito Yoneno got a double, barely beating the throw to second (he's a catcher, what do you want) and then Miyade (!!) got a single up the middle, scoring Yoneno. 8-3. Keizo Kawashima followed that up with yet another hit, making him 4-for-5 on the day. But the Swallows failed to capitalize on yet another set of chance music and went emptyhanded.
After Igarashi struck out 2 out of 3 guys he faced in the top of the 9th, Shinya Okamoto came out for Seibu, and though Takeuchi led off with a double, that was all that happened. Yasushi Iihara stepped to the plate and we were talking about the great difference between Japanese and American baseball fans -- here it is, a preseason game, bottom of the 9th, two outs, runner on third base, the home team is down by 5 runs... and what are the fans doing? They're yelling "YASUSHI!!!" at the top of their lungs as if it's a close game and the season's on the line. "In Seattle," we think, "Nobody would have bothered to stay past the fifth inning, aside from the diehards and the beer snobs."
I point out that Iihara's accomplishments so far today include three strikeouts in a row and a foul popup. So it's not particularly surprising when he pops out to left field to end the game, Seibu winning 8-3.
Dear Seibu: You can't go wrong by taking another kid named Matsusaka, right?
Dear Yakult fans: It's gonna be another long season, isn't it? I've heard the beer is better out in the bleachers, at least...
Dear Jingu: Love the makeover. That shade of green goes GREAT with your eyes.
Dear Miyade: You are tall. But that does not mean you are fast. I still like you anyway.
Dear Katoh: Hey, look on the bright side, at least you got roughed up BEFORE it counts. Get it out of your system now.
Dear Riggs: High socks! Woohoo!
Dear Chris and Rachel: Thanks for putting up with me during the game! See you in Safeco someday!
Dear Baseball: Thank you for starting again. It was a LONG winter.