Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Game Report: Marines vs. Hawks - Ninth Inning Nishioka

Okay, this is a long one, but it was a pretty crazy day for me. I got up fairly early to head down to Chiba Marine Stadium on the morning of April 6th, with my friend Isamu "Tokyo Sam" Maruhashi, who follows the MLB from Japan the same way I followed the NPB when I was in Seattle. Last time Sam and I went to a game together was ALSO in Chiba, towards the end of the 2006 season. But last time we didn't get to have a backstage tour and meet the leader of the band, as it were ;)

If you want, you can just skip this entire entry and go look at my pictures from the game, they tell a pretty good story themselves, I think.

At about 10:55am, we went up to the special-people-associated-with-the-team desk, and I tried to explain that Larry Rocca had left us tickets... except apparently he hadn't. We actually were supposed to talk to the media people, it seems, BUT just as I was about to go into a dead panic and try to call Larry... Larry walked through the door and said, "HEY! IT'S THE GIRL WHO KNOWS TOO MUCH ABOUT BASEBALL!!"

(My nickname this week is apparently "Deanna Baseball", by the way.)

Anyway, I introduced Larry to Sam, and then Larry pretty much immediately took us onto the field. We had gotten there just too late to see Marines batting practice, with the legendary two batting cages. (As Larry put it, "Our homefield advantage is that we get to work twice as hard!") The Hawks were starting to take the field for batting/fielding practice, although some Marines players were still there and straggling off the field. Tomoya Satozaki walked by us and I sort of smiled at him and he sort of looked at us funny. (I was wearing a Satozaki #22 shirt.)

I'm standing there looking around like "Oh my GOD that is Munenori Kawasaki standing right there... and Matsunaka! And Tamura! And is that Shibahara? Holy crap! I'm standing on the field at Chiba Marine Stadium!" when naturally, who walks up to us but Bobby Valentine, and even more to my surprise he remembered who I am and said hi. (Sam commented later, "I couldn't believe you were just standing there talking to Bobby Valentine like you're old friends." Thinking about it, though, Bobby seems like a really open and nice guy in general, that could talk to anyone as if they were old friends. I wonder why there isn't an "ore-tachi no Bobby" cheer?)

So, we took pictures. Bobby is surprisingly about the same height I am. Sam is not. That is beside the point. (If you didn't see them in the last entry, here is the three of us, here is me with Bobby, and for good measure here is me with Larry.)

Larry took us over to the other side of the field and we watched the pitchers doing fielding practice; naturally I'm like "oh wow! there's Arakaki! And Kume! And hey, it's CJ and Ricky!" Rick Guttormson actually smiled back at me when I smiled at him, but I don't think CJ noticed me at all. But anyway, suddenly I realize that SADAHARU OH IS STANDING LIKE 50 FEET AWAY FROM US. I don't even really know how one is supposed to react in the presence of a living legend, although everyone else seemed to be like "He's just the Hawks manager, dude." But everyone else is probably also a lot more accustomed to standing on the field than I am too. (Not counting that I am the queen of sneaking into minor-league stadiums, of course.)

Me being me, I was even like "Wow! That's Tatsuya Ide!!" when one of the coaches walked by. Sam says, "Who?" I reply, "He was the Fighters centerfielder a few years ago... right before we got Shinjo... er..."

Sadaharu Oh.

The Hawks player is Munenori Kawasaki, and the Marines guy is Yoshihisa Naruse. These are two of the best young players in the country.

Hitoshi Tamura, who still hasn't killed himself running into a wall, thank god.

We went into the dugout for a bit and I met Eric Neel, a sportswriter for ESPN who has apparently been doing the world circuit lately, covering Joe Torre in China and now doing a story about Bobby here in Japan. It was very interesting talking to him, but it reminded me of how frustrated I get about people's viewing NPB as just a minor league for the MLB. (Not that Eric necessarily feels that way, but he reminded me about a lot of people who do.) "Come on," I said, "Japan sends over guys like Kosuke Fukudome and Daisuke Matsuzaka, and what do they get in return? Shane Spencer?" I guess that's another reason I have so much respect for Bobby -- he agrees that baseball here is awesome for what it is, and not for what can be exported.

Anyway, after watching BP for a while, we went back behind the scenes at the stadium and saw lots of neat stuff. We came through the press box and the "press seats" room, and went up to the third floor to the VIP area, which is actually a lot like the VIP boxes in other stadiums like Safeco and whatnot. There's a whole ton of TV/etc booths right behind home plate, and then these nice cushy rooms with couches and all to watch the game from. And you can see the new picnic areas with tables and everything; they look really nice. There's also plates with every Orions/Marines roster ever, so I was having fun looking for the 1974 roster, and for the Ochiai/Inao years, and so on. Larry and Sam, in the meantime, were discovering that they both grew up in Maryland and thus were big Orioles fans as kids. Whereas I only have one particularly big memory of the Orioles, when they were on the WRONG side of the 1983 World Series.

The Marines Sports Bar lounge.

View of the new picnic tables from a VIP box room.

There's also a really neat "sports bar" area up there. Larry said it's supposed to look like an American sports bar and for once I think someone actually got it right (unlike the monstrosity known as the Baseball Cafe in the Tokyo Dome City). It probably didn't hurt that we were going along and former Marines players kept walking past us. One guy I totally didn't know, and then Johnny Kuroki walks by and I'm like "Why does he look really familiar?" and Sam's like "That's Johnny Kuroki, Deanna." "Ohhh. HOLY CRAP!"

We got to see some of the new stuff along the home side of the stadium too; there's an izakaya-like area way in the back of the infield unreserved seats past first base, under the cover; there are also small party rooms maybe for a birthday or something else, with baseball bats for doors. And due to the "Bobby Magic" name that was given to the secret behind the 2005 team winning the Japan Series, they also opened a Magic Bar, with lots of kinds of beer and with mixed drinks named after the players and all.

So after that we run through the concourse and come back down to the field area, and walk back out onto the field, and I look to the right and there's Kenji Morozumi (former player, now first-base coach) and I'm so surprised I just blurt out "Morozumi-senshu!" and he looks at me like "Huh?" and then I realize what a retard I am and start babbling in Japanese about "oh... I remember you from the 2005 team... er..." and Bobby laughs and comes over and also starts explaining in Japanese, "This girl has too much baseball in her head." And I'm just turning red because I can't believe what a total dork I am. At least I didn't explain that the reason I remember Morozumi really well is because I totally could NOT read the kanji for his name for a long time, I had to go memorize them specifically, so that gave him a special place in my brain.

So Larry had to get Bobby to sign a whole bunch of baseballs... so we're just kind of chilling out there by the dugout. I talked to Bobby a little bit about the Marines while they announced the lineup. "Nishioka's not leading off?" "Nah, he's batting third today." "How's Fukuura doing?" "Kind of hurting." "Sorry about him getting run over by Koyano..." I also asked why Imae is batting ninth, given that he is absolutely ON FIRE lately, and Bobby explained that he likes to have players who can start something in all parts of his lineup, not just at the top. Sam then pointed out that Yuniesky Betancourt is doing the same thing in the Seattle Mariners lineup right now, and we were really impressed that Bobby knew exactly who and what he was talking about without missing a beat. (Because, really, I haven't been paying attention to the Mariners since opening day, for my own sanity.)

I watched Paul Pupo work on putting up the day's lineups, and the opposing team's lineup and bench and their lefty-righty splits, which is, like, awesome. And players took fielding practice, which is also neat to watch... and some guys like Nemoto and Nishioka and Imae and all were just hanging out in the dugout and I simply can't freaking believe that I'm standing there in the midst of all this. After all of the groundball drills and whatnot, the guys came over to the dugout and did some sort of huddle. "What time is it?" "GAME TIME!" Then Frank Ramppen, fielding coach, also came over and said hi. Crazy! On our way off the field I said "Good luck today" to Jose Ortiz, but that's really about as close as I came to talking to players.

What time is it? GAME TIME!

Bobby in his natural habitat.

We got to take a brief look at Bobby's office, which is just plain awesome. I mean, it's full of photos of him with various US presidents and other famous people, and of course lots of baseball stuff, and a neat collection of old Japan Series programs, and of course a big book full of kanji that he's studying (hmm... I wonder who knows more kanji, me or Bobby) and various other awards and stuff.

Larry had to go hang out with some bankers during the game, so he took us to our seats just as the first batter of the game, Munenori Kawasaki, was on his merry way to hitting a popout to short. And our seats were AMAZING! Third base side, second row, field seats, all the way on the end by the camera wells. We got out our cameras happily...

...and shortly afterwards noticed that Moriwaki-coach, the third base coach for the Hawks, was almost always going to be in the way for taking Shunsuke pictures. Oops :)


We could also watch Tsuyoshi Wada throwing near the dugout.

Oh yeah, so see, there was a baseball game too. But when you pit top-notch pitchers like Lotte's awesome submariner Shunsuke Watanabe against Hawks' left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada -- even a gimpy Tsuyoshi Wada who's still recovering from arm trouble -- that's going to result in a lot of zeroes. So the first three innings went by blazingly fast with only four baserunners, only one of whom got past first.

But then in the top of the 4th, Hiroshi Shibahara got in a double to left, and then two batters later Shotaro Ide singled to left. Takehara's throw to the plate came in around the same time as Shibahara, but Shibahara slid in before Hashimoto could make a tag at all. 1-0. Ide advanced to second on the throw home. Nakazawa walked, and when Katsuki Yamazaki singled to right, Ide scored. 2-0. That was it for the inning as Munenori Kawasaki hit a pop fly out to center.

Shibahara slides into home plate for the first run of the game.

(You know, this is an aside; I've never really looked at Tsuyoshi Wada's groundball/flyball tendencies, BUT I will note that there were at LEAST 5 instances of a Marines batter hitting a huuuuuuuuge pop fly off of him, that would have probably sailed straight out of any normal stadium, but since we were in Chiba with the winds blowing off the bay, they all died right in front of the centerfield fence. By my count, 13 of the 19 batters he retired were on fly balls.)

Wada had a no-hitter going through 4.2 innings -- really through 6.1, but they called a Benny bloop a hit, even though Nakazawa and Shibahara lost the ball in the sun and allowed it to drop. Hashimoto walked after that but that plus a Satozaki walk in the 2nd was IT for the Marines' offense for pretty much the first 6 innings.

Shunsuke got into a bit of a jam in the 5th -- with one out Tamura singled, and Matsunaka hit into a fielder's choice. Shibahara and Matsuda both singled to center after that, but on grounders up the middle, so Matsunaka didn't score (he's looked a bit slow lately). Shotaro Ide struck out swinging with the bases loaded to end the inning. Whew.

In the top of the 7th, Mitsuru Honma led off the inning with a home run into the right-field bleachers. 3-0. Then Tamura singled, and so it was curtains for Shunsuke. Left-hander Yusuke Kawasaki came out to replace him.

Shunsuke stares at Matsunaka at third and just gets out of the jam.

Mitsuru Honma high-fives the entire dugout after his home run.

Matsunaka singled, putting Tamura's pinch-runner Ryuma Kidokoro on third, and then Shibahara hit into a 6-4 fielder's choice -- and so did Matsuda -- and Kidokoro scored on the latter one, running with two outs and the fielders failing to convert to a DP. 4-0. Kawasaki intentionally walked Shotaro Ide, and then Nakazawa popped out to end the inning.

BUT, the Marines rallied back in their half of the 7th. Satozaki hit a pop fly to shallow left, which Munerin ran out for and Shotaro Ide ran in for, making the catch. Jose Ortiz CRACKED a line drive into leftfield for a double, and then Takehara hit a looooong fly ball to center which bounced off the top of the wall and rebounded onto the field for a double (not a ground-rule double though). That scored Ortiz, so 4-1. Benny hit a single to left as well, but Ide fielded it so fast with such a good throw in that Takehara had to stay at third. That was it for Tsuyoshi Wada, though, and Akihiro Yanase came in to take his place on the mound.

Naturally, the obvious next trick was PINCH HITTER SABURO! Whee! I said to Sam, "Watch, Saburo's going to hit a pop fly that's going to die in center field." And sure enough, Saburo hit a pop fly that died in center field, but it was good enough for Takehara to score from third. 4-2 and an "Did I call that or what?" Imae hit a line drive to left and Benny had already taken off running as soon as the bat made contact, so he managed to get all the way around the bases on what became a double for Imae! 4-3. A pinch-hitting Daisuke Hayakawa grounded out after that, but the game had suddenly become a LOT more interesting.

Munenori Kawasaki says to Shotaro Ide, "What? I didn't HEAR you call me off..."

Benny, Benny, Benny would go!

Kawasaki walked Yamazaki to lead off the 8th, and then Kawasaki pitched to Kawasaki, and Kawasaki bunted. Confused yet? The rest of the team grounded out to end the inning.

Shunichi Nemoto was announced as pinch-hitting for Koichi Hori to start off the bottom of the 8th, so naturally Oh pulled pitcher Yanase and put out Koji Mise instead. So Bobby pulled pinch-hitter Nemoto and put in Keisuke Hayasaka... who hit another pop fly that died in the outfield. Nishioka also hit a pop fly out, but then Satozaki actually singled, so Mise came out and in came... Yuuki Kume! I know I make fun of Kume for his funny eyebrows, but really I'm excited to see him, since I saw him pitch when he was still at Meiji, and I am a big dork. Kume got Jose Ortiz to hit a pop fly that died in the vast foul territory near first base.


Larry stopped by around then and I told him to apologize to Shunsuke for me for the bad luck I brought him again. He said, "No problem, we're going to win today."

Ogino pitched the top of the 9th and handled the Hawks just fine, striking out Matsuda and Ide, even.

So with the score at 4-3 going into the bottom of the 9th, CJ Nitkowski came in for the save (since Mahara's having shoulder problems I'm not really clear on who's the Hawks' closer). Takehara led off with a double, then Benny grounded out moving Takehara to third. And naturally this set off whatever starts the Chiba Bouncing Oendan, which I think is designed to give the batter motion sickness.

I was positive Saburo would hit another sac fly, but Shibahara smartly let his pop foul fly fall instead of catching it; instead, Saburo walked. Imae also walked. Bases loaded for... Masahiko Tanaka! (No, the Rakuten pitcher is Masahiro.) Tanaka hit a single to left and it was 4-4! Then Hayasaka grounded to third, but Matsuda threw home for the force out on Saburo. Two outs. The next batter was Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and he was 0-for the day, so you could say he was due. And do he did, hitting a low liner to left, Imae running home, and the Marines won the game 5-4!

The entire team ran out of the dugout and soaked and crushed Nishioka and Tanaka.

Marines win! Wheeeeeeee! Let's kill our game heroes!

Tanaka was the game hero for the tying RBI -- probably for the first time in his life, and hopefully not the last, but who knows.

I took way too many pictures of this game and thus I vowed I'm totally not bringing my big camera to another game for a while, but being as I'm going back to America for a week on Saturday, my next NPB game won't be until April 27th anyway. (I'll be going to a Mariners-Royals game when I'm in Seattle, though. I hope if I yell "SHINJIRARENAAAAAIIII" really loudly, I'll be able to get Trey Hillman's attention... and thank him for the last five years.)

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