I can't believe I never wrote about this game. It was the day I decided I have to break up with Shunsuke Watanabe for his own good, because every time I go to see him pitch, he loses. Seriously. He's 3-3 in 9 games this year so far, and do you want to know those three losses? March 30th against Orix (I was there), April 6th against Softbank (I was there), and then this April 30th game against the Fighters.
I came to this game armed with a tin of Almond Roca for Larry Rocca, and in return, Larry took me around the field before the game to say hi to Bobby and Paul and others again, despite that I was wearing a Fighters t-shirt (he suggested I put on my jacket first). This time he also introduced me to batting coach Frank Ramppen:
And after that OMG he also introduced me to 1st base coach Kenji Morozumi and 3rd base coach Norifumi Nishimura. Morozumi stole the Almond Roca tin and put it on top of the dugout. It was funny. I remember Morozumi as a player, but Nishimura is a bit before my time. I believe he was a pretty darn good player, though.
I also got to meet Larry's boss, Araki-san, who speaks excellent English, and who is kind enough to allow Larry to let me see the inner sanctum of Chiba Marine Stadium. I also owe him many thanks for letting me sit in such fantastic seats, right by the 3rd base dugout :) It's amazing to get to see how much the Chiba stadium has improved in the last year or two, all across the board.
So I hung out chatting with Larry until a few minutes before gametime, and then he left to actually do work. He had invited his friend Yoshi to come hang out with me for the game, but Yoshi couldn't get there until after work, so I just sat down with my scorecard and began watching the game. I was super-excited because it was Darvish for the Fighters, and Shunsuke for the Marines. Does a matchup GET better than that? Especially for someone like me? (Maybe Kenshin-Darvish, but well, we all know how THOSE games went.)
However, unfortunately, this game went a lot like the other Shunsuke starts I saw: unlucky hits, a bunch of runs, and coming out shortly after a big homer.
The Fighters started off with two quick outs from Hichori and Kudoh, but then Kensuke Tanaka singled to right, and Inaba was hit by a pitch. Terrmel Sledge hit a biiiiiiig fly ball out to center which hit the back wall just below the yellow line (yay for Candlestick Park winds in Chiba), but that was good enough to score Kensuke and Inaba. 2-0. Tomoyuki Oda hit a high pop fly to left field and I have no clue what everyone was thinking; it probably should have been Benny's, and Nishioka kind of ran out towards it, but instead of it being an easy third out, it fell in between the triangle of those two guys plus Hayakawa. Yikes. And it was called a double, so when Sledge scored it was also an earned run. 3-0. Naoto Inada struck out after that to end the inning.
Catcher Hashimoto, who Larry was saying is super fantastic (and who has since gone down to injury), hit a homerun into the Marines cheering section in the 2nd inning. 3-1.
Shunsuke got out of the 2nd inning okay, but in the 3rd, Kensuke led off with a single to center, Inaba followed it up with a single into Benny's shins, and Sledge followed it up with another single, and if you know the old Royals Review adage about how "Four Singles Equals One Run, Dammit", you'll note that Kensuke scored on Sledge's single. 4-1. Oda bunted everyone up, but as usual, Naoto and Tsuruoka made quick outs and ended the inning.
Yoshi showed up around that point, and I caught him up on the game by showing him my scorecard. Yoshi is pretty interesting; he's a long-time Fighters fan and works for the Tokyo Sports magazine. So we spent most of the rest of the 3rd and 4th innings just talking about Fighters stuff. His English is about as good as my Japanese, so it was an interesting mix of languages to talk in. And naturally we had to share Fighters battle stories. Yoshi actually went to Hosei University with Atsunori Inaba, so I think he kind of wins.
And infact, just as I was telling Yoshi that I had caught an Inaba home run ball the year before at Seibu, and showed him my picture of it, Inaba went and hit a home run! What crazy timing! 5-1.
Yoshi went off to get food in the bottom of the 5th, and that's also about when the Marines decided they weren't going to just take this Darvish crap anymore. Tsuyoshi Nishioka led off the bottom of the 5th with a single, and Daisuke Hayakawa grounded to second (but Kaneko narrowly missed turning the double play). Kazuya Fukuura then hit a home run into the right-field seats, bringing the game to 5-3. Ohmatsu grounded out. Julio Zuleta grounded to third, and Naoto charged the ball but his throw was awkward and low and bounced, going past first base, so Zuleta was safe. Hashimoto singled, and then Jose Ortiz also singled, to left. Kudoh ran in, got the ball on one bounce, and threw it to home plate. The ball beat Zuleta to the plate when he still had a good 15-20 feet left to go. Zuleta crashed into catcher Shinya Tsuruoka, but Tsuruoka held onto the ball and so Zuleta was the third out.
(Note: Tsuruoka is 5'9, 170 pounds. Zuleta is 6'5, 240 pounds. Just saying.)
Yoshi came back with a teriyaki cheesesteak. "What happened?"
"Oh. I saw on the TV screen."
We cheered for Kaneko leading off the 6th (me in Japanese, "Makoto, ganbare yo!" and Yoshi in English, "Let's go Mack!"), but he lined out to second. Both of us are pretty worried about his batting, although Yoshi seems to believe it's more about an injury than about any ability issues. Kaneko seems to still be okay at fielding -- he started 3 double plays in the late game -- so who knows.
Oh, right, so somewhere around the 6th inning was also where I yelled "HICHORI!!!!!" really loud as Hichori was coming back to the dugout, but it didn't seem to get his attention. So Yoshi started yelling things about the Morimoto family restaurant instead, like "Hichori, Erika oishii yo!" ("Hey Hichori, the food at Erika is delicious!!!") and whatever, and on the second try Hichori actually looked our way and kind of waved. So Yoshi told me to also yell something about the restaurant, but I just couldn't. Not sure why.
Another really funny thing about where we were sitting is that we had this perfect view of Darvish throwing practice throws towards the end of each inning, before heading back out to the mound. And every time he started throwing, a whole bunch of people would run down and take pictures. It was very Japanese and very surreal. At one point these two women came down and asked the guy sitting in front of us to take their picture with Darvish in the background:
(I did not have my big camera, by the way. In general, there's no use in my bringing it to a night game because I have such cheap slow lenses.)
Nothing much exciting happened in the mid-to-late innings, aside from Larry coming back out to chat with us for a while. Darvish pitched 7, and Hisashi Takeda pitched the 8th. Shunsuke came out after 5, Satoru Komiyama pitched the 6th and a half, Tomohisa Nemoto ("It's not the same as the infielder, the second kanji is different") pitched to the 7 and a half, Katsuyuki Aihara ("Hey, I saw this dude in ni-gun on Sunday") pitched to the 8 and a half, getting one out in the ninth and then walking Takahito Kudoh. Yoshihiro Itoh came in and then also walked Kensuke, and so the stage was set for Inaba to hit a single and drive in yet another run, Kudoh scoring. 6-3. Sledge also walked, but Iiyama struck out and Naoto grounded out.
Micheal came out to close down the game and did so pretty quickly.
I think the real game hero was Yoshi's sempai Atsunori Inaba, going 4-for-4 with two RBIs, that home run, two runs scored, and so on. It was pretty funny watching the press cluster around his feet to listen to his postgame interview, like peasants around a king:
I had forgotten to give Larry back my backstage pass (or Larry forgot to get it back from me, whichever), so Yoshi and I went down to the kankeisha desk to give it back to them. It was really difficult to get there though, there was a huge crowd of people by the security gate, and Yoshi had to explain to the guards what happened so we could get through. We couldn't figure out why there was such a big crowd until freaking DARVISH walked right past us with his entourage, and people started cheering and taking pictures. He's a rock star, I tell you.
Anyway, fun times. I got home from that game around 11:30pm. Then I realized I had pretty much no time to both sleep and prepare for my Sapporo trip, since I had to be at the US Embassy by 8:30am the next morning for a press conference for The Zen of Bobby V, and then catch my flight to Hokkaido immediately after. But it was a completely crazy experience all in itself. I really can't possibly thank Bobby and Larry enough for giving me so many opportunities to learn so much. Hopefully I will get to visit Chiba a few times next week... if it doesn't rain...