Monday, July 07, 2008

Big Trouble in Little Chiba: Difficulty Getting to Sweep

Softbank at Chiba Lotte. Hawks 7, Marines 6.

It was a hot, sunny day in Chiba Marine Stadium. There was no wind coming off the bay, and the ground must have been at least 40-45 degrees Celsius. Heat lines waved in the distance, and the grounds crew worked frantically to wet the dirt so people wouldn't end up with mouthfuls of dust every time anyone ran around on the infield.

Marines catcher Tomoya Satozaki stood on home plate with Ken Shinzato, tossing baseballs to batting coach Frank Ramppen to hit out for fielding practice. He watched the Marines players running around, thinking how they were at least lucky not to be wearing dark black uniforms like the Hawks on such a sunny day. He called Shinzato over.

"Dude, I have an idea," Satozaki said.

"What's that?" Shinzato said, tossing another ball to coach Ramppen.

"I think we've been going about this all wrong. We need to play a slightly different game today than usual."


"Yeah. See, we've already beaten these big Kyushu birds twice this weekend. If we beat them again, it'll be a completely whitewashed series for us. But usually, when you want to clean something up, you get out a vacuum, right? And what does a vacuum do?"

"It sucks?"

"Yes. Exactly. It sucks. That is our problem. We suck. And for once, sucking is not the right way to clean this all up."

Shinzato tilted his head to the side, blinked, and threw another ball. "So what do you suggest?"

"We try a different tactic. Instead of being like a vacuum and sucking, I say we need to make like a broom and SWEEP."

"Oooh, that sounds really neat," Shinzato replied. "I'm not sure I've actually seen us do that before... I haven't been with the team that long... do you think it'll work?"

"Yeah. Look, I'm gonna tell all the guys in the dugout about it. Can you go find Hiro and the pitchers and let them know? New plan. Sweep. Break the vacuum, bend like the broom. We can do it."

"We can do it. Sweep." repeated Shinzato. "Today, we are not going to suck. Right?"

"Right. Sweep's the word. Spread it."

Shinzato ran off to the bullpen, and Satozaki went back to the dugout with the rest of the guys who had taken fielding practice. He explained the idea. There were quizzical looks from guys who hadn't seen a broom since elementary school, and thought sweeping things was more of a punishment than anything, but they agreed to go along with the plan. It sounded better than sucking, at least.

"WHAT TIME IS IT?" he yelled.

"SWEEP TIME!" the guys replied.

"Man, I WISH it was sleeptime," said Benny Agbayani. "I'm already dying from this heat."

The game started, and the Marines ran out to take their places on the field. The first batter, Yuichi Honda, came up to the plate. After taking a few pitches way outside, fouling off a few more, he singled to left. Munenori Kawasaki followed to the plate, and pretty much did the same exact thing. Along with Honda stealing second on the third pitch, Kawasaki singling gave the Hawks a 1-0 lead on the first two batters of the game when Honda scored on the play.

Satozaki got up and went to the mound, putting his glove over his mouth for Super Secret Sweepspeak.

"Hiro, hold on a minute. This is not part of the plan. Today we're sweeping. Not sucking."

"We're what?"

Satozaki rolled his eyes. "Didn't you get the memo?"

Kobayashi blinked. "Shin said something about a vacuum cleaner being broken, but I didn't really understand what he meant."

"Uhhh... let's just say that we can beat these guys if we don't beat ourselves. Okay? So throw a little better and let's see what we can do about keeping these guys off the bases."

"I'll try to keep them off first, but you've got to try to keep them off second."

"Fine. Consider it done." Satozaki put his mask back on and went back to the plate.

Kobayashi got behind on the count to Ohmura, but Satozaki nailed Kawasaki trying to steal. One out. But then Ohmura walked. So Satozaki had to gun him down at second as well, as Kobayashi was in the process of walking Nobuhiko Matsunaka. Two out.

"Hiro! I thought we had a deal!" shouted Satozaki.


"I did my part, now you do yours! Stop sucking!"

It was like a film had lifted from Kobayashi's eyes. He focused on the plate. He kept the ball down. He struck out Nobuhiro Matsuda, ending the half inning.

"How about that?" said Kobayashi. "Will that help our cleaning problem?"

"Yeah. Great. Awesome. Keep it up. We'll try to get you some runs here."

Unfortunately the Marines couldn't seem to get much done in their halves of the first or second inning. They'd get the first guy on base, maybe the second, and then botch it up. They did make those Hawks run around a lot in those black uniforms, but for nothing... until Jose Ortiz singled in the third, and then Kazuya Fukuura followed it up with a foul deep into rightfield territory, and then another long ball which went to the back wall for a double! Ortiz ran, and ran, and ran, and scored, tying the game at 1-1!

"Yeah!" shouted Satozaki, waiting in the on-deck circle as Ortiz came in. "That's the way to do it!"

"You too, man," replied Ortiz, completing the high-five.

Satozaki dug in and waited for a pitch. Here he was, cleanup hitter, the once and future captain, and, well, the one who was going to have to do something about this all. A home run seemed like a good idea. So he hit the ball deep to right field. Going... going... going... CAUGHT.

"That didn't work," Jose Ortiz told him as he returned to the dugout.

"I'll get him next time. We're not losing this game."

Back in the field, Ortiz, muttering something about sweepstakes, made what should have been a really awesome play, a backflip to second for a forceout. But instead, it turned into two runners on. Which turned into two more guys scoring, for a 3-1 lead. Which really pissed off Satozaki. But he decided not to let it get to him; he'd take his revenge at the plate next time, for sure.

"Hey Nishioka," he said as the Marines went out to bat in the bottom of the 5th, "Remember the sweep plan? I think this is a good time to start working on it again. Can you like, jinx this Wada guy using your Tsuyoshi Power or something?"




"What? Why not."

"No, 'cause we don't need no jinxin' for him, we're gonna kick him by just us." Nishioka called back as Toshiaki Imae led off with a double. "Y'see? Gori's got it done."

"Yeah, Sato, chill," said Jose Ortiz. "I'm also going to make up for last inning." He went out and hit a double, and the score was 4-3.

Fukuura walked, so Satozaki came to the plate with bases loaded, no out. This is perfect, he thought, almost anything I do will score a run as long as I make contact. But, if I hit a home run NOW, we will definitely, definitely, DEFINITELY not be sucking. It would be grand. It would be great. It would be, hey that pitch looks hittable--

And off it went. It wasn't a home run. It was going to be caught. Wait, it WASN'T going to be caught. And it was going to bounce off the right fielder. So it was a single! A single! Nishioka scored! Tie game! Tie game! No outs! Yeeeeeah!

Satozaki high-fived first-base coach Kenji Morozumi. "Now THIS is part of the plan."

Morozumi laughed at him. "Is this more of your broom theory?"

"It's not a theory. It's the truth. It's going to happen. I can FEEL it."

Satozaki did not make it back to home plate himself, but the Marines did add two more runs that inning, getting to a lead of 5-3.

Brian Sikorski replaced Kobayashi on the mound for the sixth inning. Satozaki came out to the mound to give him the ball. "Brian, you know about the plan, right? No sucking, all sweeping, everyone's got to bring it."

Sikorski stared into the catcher's mask. "Sato," he said in a deadpan, "I ALWAYS bring it."

Satozaki laughed. "Alright, let's KEEP this lead!"

And so they did. Two strikeouts, a single, and then a big popup behind the plate which Satozaki tore off his mask and ran down like a salaryman about to miss the last train home.

"Awesome run," said Sikorski as they met back by the dugout, punching a high-five.

"It's all part of the plan," Satozaki replied, a gigantic grin on his face.

He didn't notice the quizzical look Sikorski gave him as they went to sit down.

Nor did he give a peptalk to Yusuke Kawasaki. Kawasaki was a lefty coming in to face a lefty-heavy Hawks lineup anyway, where 5 out of the top 6 batters were lefties. He had everything under control. The Marines didn't add anything to their score, but it was still 5-3 going into the middle of the 8th inning. A fantastic Imae play and a strikeout later, there were two outs on the board, and even a single by Hasegawa didn't phase anyone too much.

Michael Restovich was due up to bat next. A big right-handed foreign hitter called for a change to a right-handed pitcher, perhaps, and Yasutomo Kubo rode out the bullpen car and met everyone on the mound.

"Sato!" he said.


"Your vacuum's broken, I heard? You've really got to try out one of those Roombas. It's so cool, it just goes around your room sucking up all the dirt for you, you don't even have to push it around or anything--"

"My vacuum's not broken. And the point is that today we are NOT supposed to suck. And we're not sucking. So don't start."

Satozaki walked back towards the plate, trying to think of a good pitch sequence for Restovich. Only he noticed that the guy taking warmup swings in the on-deck circle was not a big American, but instead a lanky Japanese guy with high socks. Yeah, indeed, it was Hiroshi Shibahara.

"That's a really good move by Oh," Satozaki thought to himself, getting into a catching position. "Kubo's been murdered by lefties this year, might as well put another one in since they've got them to spare."

Shibahara took the first pitch, and Satozaki continued his little mental soliloquy. "Infact, I feel like I've been here before. Like a few weeks ago, on another sunny day, when there was a righty-hitting foreigner batting in the 7th position. Wasn't it Lew Ford? Yeah, for Hanshin. That was also a crazy close game where we were only down by a few runs, going into the late innings after a fairly good start by Kobayashi. And then there was that parade of relievers, and then Kubo came out, and then Okada pinch-hit the lefty outfielder Katsuragi for Ford..."

The second pitch, Shibahara reached out a bit but ended up fouling it back. "And wait, that's right, Katsuragi came out with one guy on base, and he absolutely KILLED a pitch into the rightfield stands. I seriously thought that someone had fired a gun."

Satozaki threw the pitch back to the mound. "But that's okay. I mean, this is Hiroshi Freaking Shibahara we're talking about now. And today's the day of the Big Plan. We're going to not suck. We're going to sweep. We're going to... wait a minute." He looked out towards the mound. "I wonder if Kubo knows about the plan? Did Shinzato ACTUALLY tell the bullpen? Or did they just get some message about a vacuum cleaner? Not a broom? Could it be that he is NOT aware that today is NOT the day to suck, and..."

The ball came in to the plate. Shibahara swung.

"Oh crap," Satozaki finished his thought.

A few seconds later the ball landed in the right field stands.

"THIS IS NOT PART OF THE PLAN!" Satozaki yelled angrily, but he was drowned out in the noise of the Hawks fans.

The team regrouped in mid-inning with the game now tied. Saburo tapped Satozaki on the shoulder. "I know this isn't going according to your plan," he said, "but I'm going to do whatever I can this inning to get us back on track. Take no prisoners."

"Go for it. What could possibly go wrong?"

Saburo came back in at the end of the inning, covered in dirt and absolutely fuming. "What can go wrong? What can go RIGHT? Aside from getting tagged out at the plate trying to score from first on a long hit to left... nothing, apparently."

And then as if to add insult to injury, Satozaki got charged with an error when Nishioka threw home to try to cut off a few runs in the top of the 9th. Instead, the Hawks ended up ahead, 7-5.

"This is just getting ridiculous," he said. "I give up. We suck. We can't do anything right around here."

"Wait a minute, Sato," said Imae. "I'm sorry about the last inning, but you know, it's not over until it's over. Let's see what we can do now."

"Yeah," said Jose Ortiz, "We're just two runs down. Two runs is not impossible. We can do this."

Shunichi Nemoto stood up and walked over. "If they'd just put in a right-handed pitcher, I'd totally go kick some Hawk butt for you, Sato. Seriously."

"It's all my fault," said Kubo. "But if you give up now you'll never get a new vacuum cleaner, right?"

"IT'S NOT ABOUT THE VACUUM CLEANER," yelled Satozaki. A bit more quietly, he added, "I just thought we could win today. Didn't Shinzato tell you that?"

Kubo stared at him. "It's not about the vacuum cleaner?"

Shinzato, who was hiding behind the bat case, peeked out. "I think I got the message mistaken," he said. "Can we fix it now?"

"We can," said Nishioka.

"We can," said Fukuura.

"WHAT TIME IS IT? IT'S SWEEP TIME!" shouted Saburo and Hayakawa.

"Sleep time?" said Shoitsu Ohmatsu. "It IS getting awfully dark outside for 4pm, isn't it?"

Tsuyoshi Nishioka came up to the plate and sneered at pitcher Akihiro Yanase.

Yanase threw a ball, high and outside.

Nishioka sneered again. And again. And again. And three pitches later he was standing on first base.

"Nice," said Satozaki. "Was that an in-taunt-ional walk?"

Jose Ortiz came out and sneered at pitcher Akihiro Yanase. And ended up striking out. But Nishioka took off running and stole second on the last strike.

Manager Oh signaled for a pitching change, and CJ Nitkowski rode out of the bullpen in the nice shiny silver car.

"Dammit," said Nemoto. "So much for kicking."

"It's ok," said Fukuura. "I'll do enough kicking for everyone. Just gimme a minute."

And kick he did, hitting a double to right. Nishioka scored! 7-6! Just one run left!

"See, Sato?" Nishioka said, crossing by the on-deck circle. "Ain't no vacuums for us today. Y'know whatcha gotta do."

"Hmm. Yeah. Eyebrows." He motioned towards the bullpen door, where Yuuki Kume was riding out on a car, to replace Nitkowski on the mound.

Satozaki put on his best sneering face, raised his eyebrows, and looked at Kume. Kume threw the ball high and outside. Whoa, thought Satozaki, and sneered again. Sure enough, three pitches later he was on first base. He looked over towards the on-deck circle, and there was Nemoto, standing there with a determined look on his face.

Nemoto looked up at Satozaki and mouthed, Hawk butt. And on the second pitch he hit this beautiful low liner which arced its way into centerfield. Except that for some reason, Takeshi Tsuji was there to make the catch.

"That was not good," Satozaki said to coach Morozumi, as he ran back to first.

"No kidding. Where's your broom now?"

"I think I'm going to have to trade it in for a beer shortly."

Saburo took ball four. "And Benny's buying," Satozaki said as he walked off to second.

Bases loaded, two outs, bottom of the ninth. The fans were bouncing and yelling as loudly as ever, on both sides. Hawks fans were shouting encouragement to Kume; Marines fans were shouting cheers for Benny. Nobuhiko Matsunaka couldn't contain himself and actually stepped out of the dugout to start yelling encouragement to his teammates, since he'd been pinch-run for in the top of the 9th.

Satozaki looked behind him to see how the fielders were positioned. "Hey Mune," he shouted towards Kawasaki, "Bet you a beer we win this one. You old enough to drink yet?"

But his words fell on deaf ears, as Benny hit the ball up in the air towards left field and everyone ran out there, Kenta Nakanishi making the catch. The Hawks paraded to the mound and high-fived each other.

Ken Shinzato was waiting back on the bench when the players came through the dugout. "I'm really sorry I messed up the message to the bullpen, Sato," he said. "I'll buy you a beer or something to make up for it?"

"Nah, Shin," he said, "I think I'm going to just go home and sit under an airconditioner for a while to let off the steam from this crazy game."

"Wow, that blows," replied Shinzato.


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