Thursday, July 16, 2009

Game Report: Japan vs. USA College Tournament Game 2

I went to the second game of the Japan-US Collegiate Baseball Tournament on Monday night at the Tokyo Dome. The Japan team won 7-5, mostly on a rally in the 3rd inning where the Japan lineup batted around the order and did typically Japanese things like infield singles and headslides and stealing bases and whatnot for 6 runs, all of which were unearned.

What was striking about this tournament for me, no pun intended, was the differences in the play style and, for lack of a better way to put it, the body types of the two teams.

Japanese players are, with the exception of some like Ryoji Nakata or Okawari-kun Nakamura, not usually huge guys. They don't usually have tree trunks for arms and shoulders a mile wide, and most of them can take off their baseball uniforms, put on some typical Japanese male clothes (by which I mean what they call fashion here), and completely slip into the background and for the most part nobody will even suspect there's anything special about them. Whereas the stereotype for the American baseball player is that he's at least 6 feet tall, and has these huge shoulders and arms and so on and so forth, and, well... looks like a baseball player, or an army recruit.

So when the American players started lining up, the guys behind me were saying things like "Wow! Look at them all, they all look like Major Leaguers!"

And I was thinking... huh, they really do. That's weird. And they're just freshmen or sophomores in college for the most part. Have I just forgotten what the MLB is like, or does the body stereotype start that early?

It's not uncommon in Japan to hear players talking about how "I worked on building leg muscles this winter in order to hit more home runs", or to see players who put their entire body into a throw from the outfield, using momentum and torque for the force on a throw as much as their own arm strength. But I noticed that the USA players tended to throw more just from the arm, rather than with an entire body motion.

I wonder if that difference is part of what caused FOUR Japanese baserunners to be caught stealing. Maybe they just weren't anticipating the catcher being able to nail them at second given his mechanics.

Also, one other major difference was that there was no ouendan at this game, and BOY did it seem quiet.

Anyway, I went to this game with Gen. He was kind enough to get there early and save seats about 15 rows back from the USA dugout, so we had a pretty good view, but as usual the Tokyo Dome sucks for taking photos, even when you're that close. You can see Gen's photos on his site though.

We were also lucky, or rather, I was also lucky, that the lady sitting in front of us happened to be a bigger college baseball dork than I am. We kind of both outed ourselves when Tatsuya Ohishi came out to the mound in the 6th -- I was like "OH MY GOD IT'S OHISHI!!!!" and got really excited and started bouncing up and down in my seat. The lady turns around and asks (in Japanese) "are you a fan?" and I'm like "I'm a HUGE fan! He's my absolute favorite college baseball player in Japan!" and it became clear that both of us had seen him play enough to recognize him warming up by his big yellow glove more than anything. As other guys came into the game we were both geeking out about them, especially the Tohto and Big 6 players. ("It's Soh-chan!" for Rikkio's Tanaka, and such.) We talked about the Koryo HS kids -- when Shohei Habu entered the game, she told me about how former Waseda 2B Hiroki Uemoto has a younger brother going to Meiji now who was also from Koryo. She also had stories about Tomoyuki Sugano, who pitched the last 1.2 innings and is apparently Tatsunori Hara's nephew.

I really didn't know who anybody was on the USA team, but most of the Japan team is pretty familiar to me. I realize it's partially because I go to college games here a lot, but at the same time I'm pretty sure I wouldn't know the USA college players even if I still lived in the US.

Anyway, some kid named Drew Pomerantz started for team USA, and some kid named Yuki Saito started for team Japan. Saito is probably the most famous college pitcher in the country right now, ever since he pitched Waseda Jitsugyo HS to a Koshien championship in 2006. Which is why the Tokyo Dome was fairly full -- they originally allotted only half the infield for seating, but ended up opening up the entire area as the Saito fans kept coming in.

It looked for a bit as if the Saito fans were going to be disappointed as the USA went out to a quick lead in the first inning. Christian Colon got on base via a fielder's choice and stole second, and Matt Newman singled him in. 1-0. Newman advanced when Michael Choice was hit on the shoulder by a pitch, and then Andy Wilkins singled to bring Newman home, 2-0. After every run, the entire USA team emptied the dugout and piled onto the field to congratulate the scoring runner, which was a bit odd as USA settled out to the lead.

But Team Japan rallied off of USA starter Drew Pomeranz in the 3rd inning. While poor Ryo Hayashizaki led off with a strikeout -- he would eventually cause 2 of the 3 outs in the inning -- Shingo Kamegai was safe on a deep infield hit to second, and then Shota Ishimine grounded to the mound. Pomeranz tried to throw to second to get the lead runner but an errant throw allowed Kamegai to reach second safely and Ishimine to be safe at first. Takahiro Araki then took a pitch in his arm to load the bases for Japan's Biggest College Baseball Player, Ryoji Nakata, who swung his mighty bat and promptly struck out.

With bases loaded and two outs, Keiji Nakahara hit a single through to center, scoring Kamegai and Ishimine. 2-2. Masayoshi Katoh followed that with another single, this time to right, and the throw in from the outfield came home but Araki somersaulted past the USA catcher and slapped home plate with his hand on the way through, avoiding a tag. 3-2. Keigo Hagiwara grounded to first, and Andy Wilkins fell over while getting the ball, and thus Hagiwara was safe as Wilkins relayed the ball to Pomeranz covering first. Nakahara scored in the meantime, 4-2, and that was when the USA manager came out to make a pitching change, replacing Pomeranz with TJ Walz.

But Japan wasn't finished. Katoh and Hagiwara pulled off a double steal of second and third off new pitcher Walz, and Takanori Satoh doubled to right anyway, scoring both of the runners. 6-2. Hayashizaki then grounded out to end the inning, having the dubious honor of leading off and ending the inning with outs. Poor kid.

In a sequence of "WTF were you thinking?", the top of the 4th basically went as the following:
Kamegai managed a bunt single, fielded by the third baseman.
During Ishimine's at-bat, Kamegai was caught stealing second.
Ishimine singled to center.
During Araki's at-bat, Ishimine was caught stealing second.
Araki struck out.

Japan was caught stealing 4 times. I actually thought it was 5, but it turned out that in the 5th, what really happened is that Hagiwara struck out, and catcher Grandal fired the ball to second to catch Katoh anyway, but it was irrelevant.

Japan added another run in the 6th when Walz walked the bases loaded, Araki struck out but the third pitch got away from the catcher, so Satoh was able to score and the other runners advanced in the meantime. 7-2.

Tatsuya Ohishi had pitched a pretty good 6th inning, striking out two and giving up a walk, but then team USA started hitting him in the 7th. Yasmani Grandal led off with a line-drive single to center. Tyler Holt struck out, but a pinch-hitting Bryce Brentz ended up hitting another single to left, which advanced Grandal, and then there was a really odd "hit by pitch" call on Chrstian Colon -- from our view it looked like maaaaaybe the ball grazed his arm, but either way, the bases were loaded. Japan pulled Ohishi and put in Toyodai's lefty Masahiro Inui, who promptly gave up a bases-clearing double to Matt Newman. 7-5. Inui then hit Mike Choice in the foot with a pitch, before settling down and striking out Wilkins and Forsythe.

Similarly, Inui loaded the bases in the bottom of the 8th before being pulled for reliever Tomoyuki Sugano, the aforementioned nephew of Tatsunori Hara, and had to watch another pitcher handle his charges. Fortunately, Sugano handled it better than Inui had, and struck out Colon and Newman to end the threat. Sugano also handled the USA batters in the 9th pretty quickly and the game ended at 7-5.

It was a very odd finish. The USA players and Japan players lined up and high-fived each other, and that was about it. I felt like there needed to be a bunch of guys in black uniforms waving flags yelling "FURE FURE USA" and "FURE FURE NIHON" and so on, but there wasn't. No ouendan and no singing makes baseball something something.

As of my finally writing this up, the USA and Japan collegiate teams have tied the series at 2-2 and are playing the final game tonight at Meiji Jingu stadium.

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