Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Game Report: Eagles vs. Marines @ Chiba Marine - In with the old, out with the new

When I went down to Chiba Marine Stadium for Monday's game, I'll admit that I mostly was only interested in doing two things:

1) Taking photos of the awesome Lotte throwback uniforms
2) Watching Shunsuke Watanabe continue his undefeated streak

(I wanted to say hi to Seguignol and the other Rakuten foreign players again, but I got there a bit late, I guess.)

I hung out by the dugout after Rakuten finished BP, and waited for the Marines to come out and take fielding practice so I could get camera trigger-happy. Coach Kenji Morozumi came out and stood by the dugout too, and I told him I really admired his tarp sliding skills (from Sunday, when the game rained out, and Morozumi put on a performance sliding into soaking wet tarp-covered bases) and that it looked like fun. He laughed and said thanks, and that yeah, it was actually pretty fun to do.

Tachibana-trainer came out to do the pregame stretches with the team, and a bit later I went crazy taking photos. Unfortunately, I seem to have accidentally made a mistake with the white balance on my camera, which of course was made slightly worse by these off-white uniforms. But anyway, here is my photo set from the whole day, and here are a few of my favorites from the pre-game:

Staring over Morozumi's shoulder -- but look at the uniform details!

Toshiaki Imae might have actually shaved this week.

I have no clue what Ohmatsu and Ohtsuka were talking about but I bet it was pretty funny.

Takeshi Kanazawa ponders infinity.

Shunichi Nemoto + Throwback Uniform + High Socks = Infinite Awesome

Masahiko Tanaka (gingiragin!)

Bobby Valentine came out and said hi and asked where the heck I'd been. ("I was here yesterday! But I didn't see you! Too rainy?") You know, I had been feeling a little bit grumpy/sad before that, but I discovered that it is fairly impossible to be unhappy around Bobby. He was smiling and waving to fans and yelling hello to them and posing for pictures and everything. Maybe it's the Bobby Magic or something.

Larry Rocca encouraged me to go run after Bobby to the lineup exchange with Katsuya Nomura, one of the most notorious and celebrated figures in Japanese baseball history. So I did, lining up with all the other photographers trying to shoot the epic event. The only problem is, all the photographers followed NOMURA back to the RAKUTEN dugout and I didn't know how on earth to get back to the Marines dugout, so I just... ducked and ran, as fast as I could. Larry told me that I almost got killed by a throw between Hashimoto and Kanazawa. Whoops. I think next time I will skip that part of the pregame ceremonies :)

This guy terrifies me.

This guy is awesome.

I tried, but could not get a decent picture of Hisao Heiuchi and the gigantic bandage behind his ear. Last Tuesday, on the 12th, Heiuchi had to be carried off the field on a stretcher after a bizarre accident -- he was at third base running home as Saburo hit a double. Saburo's bat split and a big chunk of baseball bat went flying towards Heiuchi running home and ripped open a gash in his neck. He scored the run, holding his ear/neck in pain, and then was basically taken to a hospital where they found no serious damage done, thankfully. I am astounded that he was already back on the field two or three days later. Seriously. In the US I bet a guy with a freak accident like that would have been out for quite a while (although probably partially imposed by the 15-day DL rule, but still).

The field became crowded with pre-game festivities; mascots and Marines Dance Girls and other photographers and officials from the Chiba City Office were all on hand, as well as Tomehiro Kaneda (#17), a pitcher for the Lotte Orions in the mid-to-late 1970's, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch. I escaped after people gave flowers and speeches, and ran back to the press room, where I watched the first three innings of the game. Had a great conversation with a scout who was back there, and a damn good thing too, because the bottom of the second inning would have been a royal pain in the neck to figure out on my own:

Saburo led off with a single to center, okay.
Takehara followed that up with a double into the leftfield corner, fine.
Then Benny came to bat and also doubled to the leftfield corner. The other two guys scored to make it 2-0.
Hashimoto popped out to right, and then...
Okay, so Akira Ohtsuka hit a ground ball to third. But Jose Fernandez kinda took an odd twist with the ball and maybe threw it to first before he was aimed right, so the ball went sailing over Fernando Seguignol. And since Seguignol is THE tallest first baseman in Japan now, that's one pretty big target to miss. Benny went to third and Ohtsuka made it to second on the play. And then...
Alright, so I guess Masato Watanabe was trying for a squeeze bunt play, one out and runners on second and third, right? Except... he got up to two strikes and then struck out bunting, the bunt going foul. At least, I think that's what happened... except for whatever reason, the catcher had to throw to first, maybe? And somehow Benny scored from third anyway, and Ohtsuka ended up on third too? I know runners can steal bases on a third strike normally, and it appears that Benny and Ohtsuka were both credited with stolen bases, so I guess that's what happened, even though the third strike was a pop foul? I guess you learn something every day! 3-0.

We interrupt this game report with a brief "We Love Love Love Submarines" interlude, because the next few innings all kind of equate to "A whole lot of zeroes", and I snuck into the camera well so I could attempt to get some decent shots of Shunsuke:

And one of Rakuten starter Hiroshi Katayama. I was playing with the stadium lights angle for this one but I think it actually came out okay.

The Useless Statistics committee points out that:
Deanna has attended 11 Lotte games this year (not counting rainouts or minor league)
Shunsuke Watanabe started 7 of them, and Hiroyuki Kobayashi started the other 4.
In those games, Shunsuke is 3-2 with two no-decisions.
Shunsuke, however, is 11-4 on the season right now, because he is awesome. This August 18th game marked TWO MONTHS since the last time he lost a game, on June 18th in Yokohama. In the 8 games since then he is 6-0 with two no-decisions. (One of those no-decisions was, naturally, the game in Fukuoka that I went to, which he really should have won, and was almost there, with two batters to go...)
He is 6-3 at home and 5-1 on the road, oddly, and has won a game in every PL stadium this year except for Fukuoka Yahoo Dome, go figure.

By the way, his birthday is next Wednesday (August 27th). Unfortunately, the Marines play the Fighters that day, so I can't hope for him to win a game then :)

After my stint in the camera well I went and sat in the stands with the Murata family since I didn't get to watch a game with them on Sunday due to the rainout. We were about 10 meters away from where I was in the camera well, though, in the wing seats. I thought it'd be a better angle to get a shot of fans waving bananas during Seguignol's at-bats, but the lighting was worse. Alas.

With two outs in the bottom of the 7th, Masahiko Tanaka hit a single, and then Koichi Hori singled to center. Centerfielder Teppei bobbled the ball a bit, though, and was late getting it in; in the meantime Masahiko was off running as soon as the ball left Hori's bat, so he was able to score on the play, reaching home about a split second ahead of the ball. 4-0. Hori made it to second on the play and was replaced by pinch-runner Daisuke Hayakawa... and Nomura sauntered out of the dugout to inform the world that Katayama was done and would be replaced by Hisashi Kitani (who started the one inning of Sunday's game before it rained out). Kitani got a groundout from Imae to end the inning.

Shunsuke handled Rakuten easily in the top of the 8th (strikeout, popout, strikeout) and Saburo started off the bottom of the 8th with a walk. Kazuya Fukuura had replaced Hori at first base for the top of the 8th, so he was up to bat... and being a lefty (if you look at the Marines lineup it is basically all righties except Hashimoto) again, Nomura chose to switch from Kitani to Kenta Satake, the lefty one-out type of guy they got from Hiroshima last month when they traded Rui Makino.

Satake did get his one-out guy -- two outs even, as Fukuura grounded back to the mound for a double play -- but then Benny RIPPED a double off him to right field. Hashimoto, who Mitch pointed out to me has an apparent cheer song of "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore Hallelujah" or whatever it's called, ALSO ripped a double to right field, scoring Benny. 5-0. Akira Ohtsuka, who has a totally wacky hunched almost-Tanedaesque batting stance, walked after that. But with two guys on and two outs, Masato Watanabe struck out (for the third time that day) to end the inning.

Shunsuke took the mound to try for a complete game shutout, and the first batter of the 9th inning was Kensuke Uchimura.

I would love to sometime write an entire entry about The Adventures of Little Kensuke Uchimura, but the long and short of it, pun intended, is that he went through a pretty crazy path to end up as a pro player here, through the industrial leagues and the Hokushinetsu league and then Rakuten's taxi squad draft, and worked his way up through the farm team. At 5'4 and 140 pounds he IS the smallest guy in pro baseball here, even out-shorting Makoto Kosaka's 5'6 height.

Kensuke Uchimura before the game, with his high socks and his crazy old-fashioned thick-handle wooden bat.

To give an idea of how tall he is... you will note that this (somewhat crappy due to bad lighting) photo contains one normal-height American player, one normal-height Japanese player, one normal-height BAT BOY... and then Kensuke Uchimura. See for yourself where he fits into that scale.

So Uchimura led off the top of the 9th. The first thing he did was foul a ball right to our section, one aisle over from us. Unfortunately, It hit a guy right in the face. I think it actually split his lip open, he was bleeding pretty badly. The ushers took a while to come over and seemed kind of clueless about what to do when they did, and everyone around seemed to be in shock, so Mitch grabbed some tissues and wet wipes and ran over and was like "hey! you are BLEEDING, put this on the cut so you can stop the blood." Another guy had caught the foul ball on the rebound and gave it to the bleeding guy's son, and then guy and son were both escorted out by some ushers, ostensibly to seek medical care. I hope the guy is okay.

While all of that excitement was happening, Uchimura hit what I thought was a hard liner to Imae, but I guess it bounced, because Imae got it and then had to make a long throw to first, and Uchimura is a FAST LITTLE DUDE and so he beat the throw there for an infield single. Daisuke Kusano pinch-hit a popout to short, and then Shunsuke hit Fernando Seguignol with a pitch for the SECOND time that day, this time right in the middle of his back. (BTW, Shunsuke currently leads the league in hit batters with 11.) Jose Fernandez came to the plate with the two guys on, and BLAM he hit the ball out to left field for a double. Uchimura scored and Seggy went to third, 5-1, and with Shunsuke's shutout gone, and the game turned to a save situation, Bobby went to his closer Tadahiro Ogino to finish out the game.

Ogino got a groundout from Takeshi Yamasaki (scoring Seguignol -- 5-2), and then struck out Kenshi Kawaguchi to end the game. Marines win!

The game heroes were Benny Agbayani for driving in those first runs, and Shunsuke Watanabe for being Shunsuke Watanabe. I thought a few things were a little bit weird about the hero interview, though. You can see a transcript of it here in Japanese, but this is what Benny actually said in English and a rough translation of what Shunsuke said...

Interviewer: What were you thinking in the second inning before hitting your double?

Benny: It was in my mind just that I was gonna try to drive the runs in, and um, I did, and it was great!

Interviewer: I think those two runs gave Watanabe-pitcher a big push.

Benny: We're playing now, with the momentum we have, we have to take advantage of it, because it's coming down to the wire and every game's gonna count after this.

Interviewer: Today you were wearing the old style uniforms. Did that change how you felt while playing?

Benny: Yeah, I wanted to win a lot of games so Bobby Valentine would make us wear these uniforms, because these are *COOL*.

Interviewer: We hope you'll win in every uniform you wear. Can you say a message for the fans?

Benny: Sure, I'll send a message to the fans, but first I want to send a message to my daughter Ailana, today is her birthday and this doll is for her. To the fans, thank you very much, you are the best fans in baseball!

So then they turn to Shunsuke...

Interviewer: You almost got a shutout, huh.

Shunsuke: Winning is good enough for me. (deadpan laugh)

Interviewer: It was very nice pitching!

Shunsuke: It was sweet to finish it.

Interviewer: You haven't lost a game in two months and have 6 wins in a row. What's the secret of your success?

Shunsuke: Oh, well, Benny's hit today gave me a nice comfortable win, I think. (laughs)

Interviewer: There are 34 games left so your good pitching will be more and more important. Can you give a message to the fans?

Shunsuke: Today is Kajiwara-PR-guy's birthday, so this doll is for him! Umm... today is the last day to see the old uniforms, but I think you can still expect to see us win in our real uniforms. Please come cheer for us from now on as well. Thank you very much.

I guess the main thing I thought was weird was... I sometimes wonder if Shunsuke is being cocky or just has a bizarre sense of humor. His hero interviews often have this sort of weird mood to them, but I couldn't figure out why he was saying he'd give the doll to Kajiwara -- was he making fun of Benny, or just trying to be funny? I think it was the latter, because I would naturally always give my hero the benefit of the doubt. At the time it struck me as odd though. Maybe he also realizes how totally formulaic the hero interviews are and just wants to be a little different (because well, he IS different than all other pitchers!)

Anyway, fun game, and it's always good to see a Shunsuke win, especially a Shunsuke win in an awesome throwback uniform with high socks where he isn't playing against the Nippon Ham Fighters.

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