Today's game between Nagasaki prefecture's Seiho HS and Iwate prefecture's Hanamaki Higashi HS was pretty frustrating to watch. It was a pitcher's duel, but neither one was particularly overpowering, and there were a lot of fielding errors and baserunning gaffes. You can barely get further apart in Japan than these two teams are without being in either Hokkaido or Okinawa... and you can barely be any different than Seiho's ace righty pitcher Takeru Imamura and Hanamaki's ace lefty pitcher Yusei Kikuchi.
I didn't see Imamura as much, but he struck me as being very stoic, very composed, very good mound presence, and great pitches (he had these really wacky sort-of-curves that would sneak into the strikezone). Kikuchi, on the other hand, is huge, strong, left-handed, talented, and he knows it. First time I saw him pitch, he had this huge grin on his face most of the time, or a look of "Whatever, I'm better than you". I've heard that he was pumping his fist after strikeouts in earlier rounds of the tournament, too, which is kind of un-Japanese.
Kikuchi's expected to be a pretty high draft pick next year. A friend told me that the Fighters are especially looking at him, as the Hanamaki manager Sasaki went to Kokushikan university and is a underclassman to the Fighters coach Atsuzawa, so apparently they've been keeping an eye on him for a while.
Personally, I was rooting for Hanamaki mostly because I decided that Sasaki-kantoku was really good-looking, kind of like Okinawa's Higa-kantoku a couple of years back. He's 33, but looks late 20's. I wonder if it's a recent movement to have younger managers in charge of these school teams, instead of really old OBs... or maybe just more of those schools are making it to the tournaments lately.
Though, today, after the SECOND botched steal attempt in a situation where the runner should not have been going by ANY standards, I was beginning to think that Sasaki's not anywhere near as smart as he is cute.
I mean, seriously, that's kind of what this final game came down to. I wouldn't say that Imamura or Kikuchi were throwing all that impressively; when a kid pitches several days in a row like this, it's only natural that by the end of it they're kind of running out of steam.
But eventually Seiho FINALLY pushed ahead the first run of the game in the top of the 7th on a double to center, and as it scored, I realized that there was an incredibly good chance that the game was going to END at 1-0, and sadly, I was right.
See, Hanamaki had guys named Satoh playing center and right, and one was tall and one was short. The one I referred to as Little Satoh through the day, took a stupid lead off first, nearly got picked off, then DID get picked off stealing second in the bottom of the 6th inning, when the score was still 0-0. Fine. But then in the bottom of the 8th inning, when they were down 1-0, one out, runners at first and second, and Little Satoh at the plate, for whatever reason, the runner at SECOND tried to steal THIRD and was out. So, instead of two runners and one out, they had one runner and two outs, and then captain Kawamura hit a high pop fly foul that was not hard to get to. Boom.
To their credit, Hanamaki's first two batters in the 9th both struck out, and then pitcher Kikuchi was up to bat, and the first pitch he saw, he laced into center for a single. Yokogura followed that with a ball hit to short, which the shortstop bobbled and the throw to second was just late enough not to get Kikuchi, who slid in, feet first. Fine. But then pinch-hitter Daiki Sasaki hit a fly out to left, which was an easy catch to end the game.
Honestly, I didn't have a lot emotionally invested in either of these teams, though I'd certainly seen more of Hanamaki, and there's the tenuous Fighters connection by which they might draft Kikuchi, although if he's half as cocky as he sounds (unlike most players who put their "future dream" as "pro yakyu player", he put "big leaguer", for example) it might not be such a great pick. Well, we'll see.
There was a nice sentiment in the final speeches about how "Japan just won again at the WBC over in America, but for real, the true heart and spirit of Japanese baseball starts here at Koshien and in schools."
I'm kind of regretting that I still haven't been to Koshien for a tournament, but maybe I'll get there this summer. It seems that I'm probably starting a new teaching job on Tuesday, so at least that saga will be done with and I can get back to concentrating on important things like baseball :)