Until Saturday, Waseda University's baseball team was undefeated for the Spring 2008 season. Seriously. In their opening weekend they walloped Todai for a combined 39-0 in two games. Things calmed down after that -- their second weekend they beat Hosei in two one-run games, 3-2 and 1-0, and after that they went back to pounding Rikkio by a combiend 15-1 in two games.
Meiji University, however, also has had a strong season; before facing Waseda, they were 5-1 with two ties. Ace pitcher Iwata has put up some pretty strong games to take over where Kume and Yoshikawa left off. These are basically the top two teams in the Tokyo Big 6 league this season, so I figured it'd be fun to see them face off.
To make things even MORE interesting, Meiji actually handed Waseda their first loss of the season on Saturday, with a dramatic come-from-behind win in the 9th inning, scoring three runs off of Waseda's Kenta Matsushita in the bottom of the 9th to turn a 3-1 loss into a 4-3 win.
I went to the Sunday afternoon game on May 18th. I was too lazy to wake up in time for the 11am game, so I arrived at the stadium around 1:30pm. The Waseda-Meiji game was the second game of the day; the start time for the second game is basically "1:30pm or 20 minutes after the first game ends". So I walk into Jingu and go look for a place to buy food and literally end up walking past the entire Meiji baseball team, who are making their way to the dugouts. A few players look at me curiously; I'm fairly sure American women are rare at these games.
I arrived at the end of the Keio-Hosei game, which Keio won 4-0. The Keio pitcher for the 9th inning was a tall sidearm/submariner named Yuuki Murayama, a third-year student from Akita, who quickly dispatched of the Hosei team to end the game. Everyone bowed to their opponents and to the umpires, and cleared the field so the Waseda and Meiji players could start practice. Even the most famous college player in the country, sophomore ace pitcher Yuki "Handkerchief Prince" Saito, was out there for practice. What was he doing, you ask? He was holding a box of baseballs and handing them to manager Tatsuya Yoshinami, who was hitting grounders to third and short. I guess he's a star pitcher and a star ball boy!
They announced the starting batteries -- pitcher Yuki Egarashi and catcher Taichi Nakano for Meiji, and pitcher Kota Suda and catcher Takeshi Hosoyamada for Waseda. Learn those names, because I'd be shocked if neither of Suda and Hosoyamada get drafted this year. The other Waseda guys to remember are second baseman Hiroki Uemoto and outfielder Keijiro Matsumoto.
The game got underway with the Meiji players making a quick 1-2-3 inning. I wrote down balls and strikes, and of 12 pitches in that inning, 4 were balls, 6 were called strikes, one was a ground out, and one was a pop out. I get the distinct feeling Waseda batters are either really patient, or expect to get a lot of balls, because they don't swing at ANYTHING!
Uemoto grounded out to start off Waseda's attack, but then the aforementioned Hosoyamada hit a long fly ball out to left that bounced off the back wall for a double. The aforementioned Matsumoto took 8 pitches -- 5 fouls -- before ultimately grounding out to second, moving Hosoyamada to third. Sophomore Hironobu Hara singled to left field, scoring Hosoyamada, and setting off the Waseda ouendan even louder than before. 1-0. Udaka lined out after that to end the inning.
I have to stop a moment to say that I still think the Waseda oendan are the most impressive out of the Tokyo Big 6 league. All of the schools have pretty good groups, but the Waseda ones seem to be the most complex and have the liveliest cheering, at least from the times I've been at Jingu. (I will note that the University of Tokyo has the best quality musicians, though, which is probably to compliment having the absolute worst baseball players in the college circuit.) Plus, the fact is, the last time I saw Waseda was at Soukeisen in October, and I *still* remembered a large number of their cheer songs from that time, including "Konpeki no Sora" (The Deep Blue Sky), which will now be going through my head for weeks (it's the one that goes 早稲田, 早稲田, 覇者 覇者 早稲田 -- I'm pretty sure it and the Tyrone Woods "T!" are the most annoying possible ouenka I can sing around my friend Pau.)
(Totally unrelated, but speaking of Pau and of college ball, he showed me this fantastic Hiroshima-yaki place the other day, run by a Carp fanatic who loves college ball. It was full of photos and signatures from college teams around here. We sat under a picture of the Komazawa team from a few years back, and signature boards from Ryota Arai and Yuuki Kume, and we watched the Carp beat the Giants on TV. Before leaving, he told me to go look at some player photos up on the opposite wall, and they had one of this really familiar-looking Meiji pitcher on the mound. It took me a few seconds to realize it was Kenshin! Awesome!)
Meiji threatened Suda a little bit in the top of the 2nd; after Daisuke Sasaki struck out, Takayuki Chida singled on a line drive to left. Sophomore shortstop Fumiya Araki (my brain goes, "Why is an Araki batting left-handed, wearing #6, and playing shortstop? Shouldn't he be an Ibata at least?") almost grounded into a double play to short at that point, but beat out the throw at first base. Araki stole second in the midst of catcher Nakano's at-bat, and Nakano walked on four straight pitchers. Pitcher Egarashi, batting 8th in the order, struck out to end the inning and the threat.
The game stayed at 1-0 for a long, long time. Meiji didn't threaten again until the top of the 6th, when outfielder Tatsuya Ikeda almost hit a two-out home run; the ball bounced on the top of the centerfield wall and fell back onto the field, and he ended up with a triple instead. Sasaki walked after a full count, and at that point they took out Suda and replaced him with sophomore fireballer Tatsuya Oishi. (Maybe it should be "Ooishi" or "Ouishi" because it's actually the long O, 大石, but... I think those look weird, and Ohishi is right out due to the possibility of being pronounced oh-hi-shi.) I remembered him from Soukeisen because at that time the little kid behind us kept saying things like "Oishi wa oishikunai!" But what I didn't remember was how FAST this kid could throw. His first pitch to Chida was a called strike at 148km/h -- about 92 mph -- and the second pitch was grounded weakly to short for the third out, keeping the game at 1-0.
To his credit, Egarashi held the Waseda batters down well after that first inning; aside from walking Takanori Izumi in the 5th, he didn't allow another base runner for the entirety of the 6 innings he pitched. Although the bottom of the 6th inning was a bit crazy -- Uemoto led off by grounding to third, where third baseman Chida had to jump up to snag the ball (really a pretty great grab), and then landed, planted, and made a throw to first which was also a little high and first baseman Sasaki also had to jump to get it, and so Uemoto was safe and the play was called an error. Hosoyamada attempted to sac bunt Uemoto over, but instead his bunt attempt went up in the air and was caught by catcher Nakano. Matsumoto hit a long fly ball to centerfield for an out. With two outs, Hara was at the plate. After another toss to first to try to hold Uemoto, Hara swung at the first pitch, and then the second pitch was a pitchout, and Nakano NAILED Uemoto at second on the throw.
In the top of the 7th, Meiji shortstop Araki (heh) led off with a double to left -- another high fly ball that landed in the gap between the leftfielder and centerfielder. Nakano promptly bunted him over to third. So, one out and a runner at third, and what does Oishi do? Well, let's put it this way -- I saw him throw maybe one or two pitches under 144km/h, including a pretty nasty change-up at 125km/h that had pinch-hitter Komachi looking pretty silly. The rest were all in the upper 140's, and he topped out at 152 (95mph), and just overpowered Komachi and another pinch-hitter, Fusabayashi, striking them both out swinging. He got a little too much movement on his pitches, maybe, throwing 6 balls and 8 strikes that inning, but wow, what power. And he's just a sophomore!
Anyway, the NEXT exciting thing to happen was... they had pinch-hit for Egarashi in the 7th, so Meiji had to bring in a new pitcher for the bottom of the 7th, and guess who it was? Yusuke freaking Nomura! WOW!
(Backstory -- Summer Koshien 2007 was won by Saga Kita HS, but Koryo HS -- a REALLY strong baseball school from Hiroshima -- pretty much stomped their way to the finals, mostly on the arm of Yusuke Nomura, a really strong kid with a lot of poise and a damn good slider. And if he hadn't pretty much just tired out after the normal 3 or 4 days straight of pitching 200 pitches a day in the dead heat of summer for the tournament, I'm fairly sure Koryo would have won overall -- but then in the 8th inning of that final game between Koryo and Saga Kita, he broke down and a 4-0 lead turned into a 5-4 loss on a homerun by Soejima, and the rest is history. Anyway, I had wondered what happened to him -- neither of the Saga ace pitchers, nor Nomura, or any of the heroes of that final Koshien game, got drafted in the fall 2007 draft. And so now I know -- he's pitching for Meiji! Awesome!)
ANYWAY, so Nomura comes out and suddenly the Waseda players actually start swinging at pitches, which is pretty impressive. Hara strikes out swinging on a 2-2 pitch. Udaka walks, but Kojima hits a weak pop-up to second, and then Matsunaga also strikes out swinging on a 2-2 pitch. Good stuff. But then Nomura ran into some problems in the bottom of the 8th. Izumi led off by walking, and then Saito Yuki, who was in the game by then (I'll come back to that in a second) bunted Izumi over. Uemoto singled to left, moving Izumi to third. Uemoto stole second during Hosoyamada's at-bat, and Hosoyamada pulled off a squeeze bunt, scoring Izumi and moving Uemoto to third. 2-0. Matsumoto hit a solid single to right, scoring Uemoto. 3-0. Nomura came out of the game and Kenta Kondoh came in.
Matsumoto stole second on the first pitch to a pinch-hitting Shiraishi, and made it all the way to third on an errant throw by Nakano. Shiraishi ultimately walked. But then to make up for it, pitcher Kondoh picked Shiraishi off first to end the inning.
Now, I might have mentioned that Saito Yuki was in the game -- which was kind of a surprise to me. I figured I wasn't going to get to see him pitch at all this year, given that he usually starts the games on Saturday; in theory Waseda can win without him on Sunday, and then they don't play Monday. (But if they did, he'd be the starter.) But, well, that tasty fireballer Oishi ran into some trouble in the top of the 8th, as a messy fielding decision between the third baseman and shortstop allowed Komichi a single, and he was bunted over to second. So with one out, Waseda switched pitchers again... and just like last time, the people around me all started saying "Maybe it'll be Saito! Maybe it'll be Saito!" Except this time, it actually WAS Saito. Oooooooooooh.
Saito comes out throwing that 148 km/h slider of his, and gets out of the inning without any runs scoring (pop out, walk, groundout to first).
The top of the 9th happens, and Araki leads off with a single to right. And then Nakano follows it up with another single to right! And everyone's wondering what's happened to his Highness, and why he's suddenly become vulnerable. I guess he was wondering the same thing, as he proceeded to strike out a pinch-hitting Ryota Yasuda after that. Okay, fine, one out, runners at first and second. Yuuya Fukudani pinch-hits, and on the second pitch to him, Nakano is a LITTLE too far off first and Hosoyamada fires the ball to first base and picks him off! Yikes! Araki steals third on the next pitch, but it's just too late. Fukudani swings at the fourth pitch -- and I thought he fouled it, and maybe he did, but either way, he starts running, and Hosoyamada gets the ball and throws it to first, and it's a strikeout and the game is over, Waseda winning 3-0.
The players all run to the line between the mound and home plate and line up. The two teams and the umpires bow to each other once again, and the players leave the field. The cheering groups sing their school songs in turn and also salute each other. This is why I think watching college ball is really a fantastic way to observe the rituals of Japanese baseball, while still getting to see a pretty high-quality game in a high-quality stadium.
It's also pretty neat to wonder which of these Meiji guys is the next Kenshin, or the next Takashi Ogasawara, or the next Kume, or Kizuka, or Ichiba... or which Waseda guy is the next Aoki, or Toritani, or Hiroyasu Tanaka, or Tsuyoshi Wada... just very exciting stuff.
(Postscript: I may have mentioned being dumbfounded at having Handkerchief Prince pitching two days in a row, and sure enough, he was the starter in Monday's tiebreaker game, and Waseda lost to Meiji 2-0, with a better-rested Iwata pitching 7 shutout innings and Egarashi coming back to nail down the game and the series. I think it was pretty smart of Meiji to save Iwata for Monday -- and I'm still glad I got to see Yusuke Nomura, so it's really a big win all around.)