Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Game Report: Buffaloes vs. Lions @ Seibu Dome - The Kiyohara Conundrum

I went to the Seibu Dome tonight for the Lions' final home game of the season. It was cold and rainy and terrible outside, and I was kind of sick this weekend, but thanks to being informed and encouraged by a particularly awesome Seibu staff member, I decided to journey out to Tokorozawa anyway. I invited Simon to come with me since he's got a flexible schedule and can actually go to games on Mondays, plus he grew up watching the Lions so I thought the Kiyohara ceremony would be interesting to him.

Unlike most normal weekday Lions games, this one was not only close to sold out in advance, but people actually WENT to it. By the time I arrived at 4:30pm, it was already difficult to get up to the fence to watch BP, because people were standing there all the way out past the baselines. Crazy. I kind of assumed they wanted to see Kiyohara, and I also assumed he'd already taken BP by that point.

After the Buffaloes finished BP, a bunch of Lions went out to take infield practice, and you know who I saw out there tossing with Nakajima? TORU FREAKING HOSOKAWA, THAT'S WHO. So for those of you (read: Christopher) who are up in arms about how Benny injured him so badly... I don't think it could have been THAT bad if he was out there throwing, laughing, and even playing in tonight's game, where he went 1-for-3 with a walk. I'm just saying. I was really surprised to see Hosokawa, but I'm glad he's okay. Or at least, I will be until he hits a grand slam against the Fighters in the playoffs.

How I spent the rest of the time before the game is a bit of a blur. I bought a Kataoka bento for dinner because it was the only player bento available inside the stadium (but it has a lot of cool stuff inside!), and then I took some photos while waiting for Simon to show up. I caught Oze and Hamanaka and Shimoyama running around in left field, and then I sat by the bullpen to watch Orix starting pitcher Mamoru Kishida warm up, sitting in the second row to avoid the strict ushers. Simon arrived and I ran off to the entrance to go get him, and shortly after that the game started.

Kazuhisa Ishii was starting for Seibu, and he spent the first inning getting three strikeouts and giving up a HUGE 2-run homer to Alex Cabrera. 2-0. Seibu made up one of those runs in their half of the first between a Kuriyama single and Nakajima double off the wall. 2-1. Kishida, to his credit, got three strikeouts himself in the bottom of the 2nd, after an errant pickoff throw to first base on Yoshihito Ishii.

It looked like the Lions were going to break open the game in the 4th inning, when Taketoshi Gotoh led off with a double to right, RF Shimoyama falling over on the play, and then Gotoh stole third as Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura struck out. Then Yoshihito Ishii grounded to short... and Keiji Ohbiki fired the ball to home plate, and I don't even know why the heck Gotoh was running at all, as I blurted, "You are SO out." And he was, by a mile. Yutaro Osaki got his first hit of the year after that, a "double" to "center" where the ball really fell down in the middle of a triangle between the CF, 2B, and SS, and so Ishii stayed at third, and that's where the inning ended as Hosokawa struck out.

In the top of the 5th I finally got to point out the cool Towel Chance Dance that the Orix fans do, but it didn't help them much as Alex Cabrera was intentionally walked to load the bases and Ishii struck out Tuffy Rhodes on a checked swing. As it is, Takeshi Hidaka (?!) hit a home run in the top of the 6th to make it 3-1.

But the Lions weren't having any of that. I was looking at the scoreboard and noticing Taketoshi Gotoh had hit 11 homeruns this season, and just as I was mentioning that I had watched him hit about half of those, he chose that moment to hit ANOTHER one, over the left-field wall into the visiting ouendan. 3-2. Teammate Okawari-kun came up to bat and took the second pitch he saw and not only hit a home run, but he hit a home run CLEAR OUT OVER THE LEFTFIELD STANDS.

"Man, Okawari-kun must be hungry," I remarked, "That homerun ball was aimed straight for the KFC stand." 3-3.

After giving up a double to Yoshihito Ishii, Mamoru Kishida was finally taken off the mound, and between Shogo Yamamoto and Hidetaka Kawagoe, they got out of the inning with the tie intact.

The Lucky 7 inning saw the Lions put Koji Ohnuma on the mound, who promptly threw about ninety billion super-inside pitches at Orix second baseman Mitsutaka Gotoh until he eventually hit him with a pitch on the wrist. It looked bad, but after a delay, he came back. Then in the bottom of the 7th, Kataoka led off by lining to second, and Gotoh made this fantastic diving snag catch of the ball.

"Nice play," said Simon.

"Even nicer is that it was just done by a dude who just got hit in the wrist!"

Then Takumi Kuriyama hit a grounder up the middle and Gotoh didn't make a perfect play on it, so they called it an error. Huh. Nakajima hit a fly ball out to center and Sakaguchi made a long run to make a fantastic catch, and then threw the ball in. Kuriyama was already halfway across the galaxy by the time the ball came down, so Sakaguchi's throw to first seemed to have gotten there in time for a tagout, but the umpire called Kuriyama safe at the bag before the play was even finished. First baseman Alex Cabrera was PISSED, and a small argument ensued, with manager Ohishi coming out to talk at the umpire long enough to let Cabrera cool down a bit. Kuriyama stole second a few moments later; I joked that he "wanted to get away from the big crazy dude at first base".

Anyway, we get to the top of the 9th inning, and I turn to Simon, and say, "I sense a BIG problem here."

"What's that?"

"Umm... Kiyohara?"

"Oh... YEAH."

"Does it make any sense at all to pinch-hit him?"

"No, it doesn't."

"But isn't Ohishi pretty much OBLIGATED to pinch-hit him? Or face a riot from the fans in the stands who came here to relive their childhoods?"

"He'll do it if they score a run, I think..."

So Keiji Ohbiki comes to bat, and he walks on four straight pitches. People are craning their heads to see who is in the on-deck circle, but it is... Tomotaka Sakaguchi. Who sac bunts Ohbiki up to second. More neck-craning, but Shinji Shimoyama's in the on-deck circle, and he singles to left, moving Ohbiki to third.

There are chants in the stand. "KIYOHARA! KIYOHARA!"

But no, Ohishi has slightly better things to do today, like win a baseball game, so the next batter is Mitsutaka Gotoh. The chants continue.

"Uhhh, who the heck is he going to REPLACE? What are these people thinking?" I ask.

"Yeah, and after this the heart of the order's coming up, do they really think he's going to pinch-hit for Tuffy Rhodes?" replies Simon.

So yeah, Gotoh tries for a suicide squeeze, and he bunts to the pitcher, and the pitcher throws to third base, and Ohbiki becomes a trapped rat between third and home... he runs, there's some baseball throwing, and eventually Hosokawa makes the putout, while the other batters move to second and third... where they remain as Alex Cabrera hits a big towering fly ball to right field.

Being as I'm usually a good-luck charm for Seibu, I figure they're just going to win it now. Earlier we'd been betting on which Seibu guy was going to get the walk-off home run, so when Hosokawa led off the bottom of the 9th, I kept shielding my eyes. "I can't watch," I said. "Let me know when the ball goes flying, okay?"

But Hosokawa only singled to left... was replaced by Kenta "No, not that one" Matsusaka as a pinch-runner at first. And then Craig Brazell grounded out into a 3-6-3 double play, and Kataoka popped out to center.

So, extra innings. They put a sign up on the centerfield scoreboard reminding everyone that games only go to 12 innings, and also that you are not supposed to use trumpets or drums for cheering after 10pm.

"DAIJIROOOOOOOO!" yelled a guy behind us, "BRING OUT KIYOHARA!"

And some others took up the chanting again. But Tuffy Rhodes came out to lead off the inning, and he doubled to right. Makoto Moriyama replaced him as a pinch-runner. "Hey, it's Moriyama," I said. "Pinch-runner, Morimoto," the loudspeaker said, then repeated correctly, "Pinch-runner, Moriyama". Heh.

Kitagawa (NOT Kiyohara, much to everyone's chagrin) executed a sac bunt properly and moved Moriyama to third, and then Hiroyuki Oze did another sac bunt, down the first base side, and Moriyama slid in at home plate before Ohnuma even got the ball. 4-3.

(Going through my photos later, I realized I not only had a photo of Oze and Moriyama warming up together during BP, but of Oze practicing bunts in the BP batter's cage, which I thought was odd at the time, but maybe should have seen as foreshadowing.)

Now that Orix had a run, who came out to the plate to bat but...

...Takeshi Hidaka. Hee hee. And there was absolutely no signs of any 41-year-old big slugger guys anywhere. We were joking, "Do you think they're going around in the dugout doing janken to decide who gets pinch-hit for?"

Hidaka struck out to end the inning. And in yet another "Huh, Ohishi makes interesting choices" move, he left Ryota Katsuki out there to finish the game, instead of bringing in closer Daisuke Katoh.

And well, it worked. Two quick outs, and then a Gotoh walk (preferable to a Gotoh homerun, I suppose). Then Okawari-kun and his 45 home runs came to the plate, and he grounded to short, where Ohbiki had to go deep for it and a pinch-running Tomoaki "Not GG" Satoh got to second safely before the throw came in. Two runners, and Yoshihito Ishii at the plate... but this time Ishii ended up striking out on a checked swing. Or not a checked swing. I don't really know, but either way, the Orix Buffaloes won 4-3 and this marked the end of a special game for several reasons:

1) it was the first time I had EVER seen the Lions lose a game at the Seibu Dome
2) the Buffaloes clinched a playoff spot by winning this game
3) there WAS no pinch-hitting Kiyohara after all (I have mad respect for Ohishi for doing this, actually)
4) it was the final season home game for the Lions and
5) it was the last time Kiyohara would step onto the field in uniform at the Seibu Dome.

Which is precisely what happened next. After the game ended, the players high-fived and all that, and rather than announcing a game hero or any such normal stuff, the fans started yelling "KIYOHARA! KIYOHARA! KIYOHARA!"

And so, Kiyohara stepped out onto the field. And the cheering grew.

I don't really know exactly what he planned to do, and it seemed like neither did he. He kind of just... walked out there. And the fans cheered. He walked to the first-base stands, walked to the mound, walked towards the outfield... he stopped at first base for a second and stood there. And the fans cheered. He went to the outfield and bowed to the fans out there, and the fans cheered.

He stopped at home plate, stood in the batter's box, and kicked the dirt a few times as if he was getting ready to play, and the fans cheered.

"Thank you, Kiyohara-player!" was displayed on the big screen as the cameras followed his every move around the stadium.

Then he went over to Lions manager Hisanobu Watanabe, who had a big bouquet of flowers and gave it to him, and they hugged, and you could see that Kiyohara -- always notorious for crying a lot -- had tears on his face as he accepted them. The entire Lions team was out there in a line applauding him.

I don't know if it was planned or not, but after that Kiyohara went to first base, and the entire Lions team surrounded him to prepare for a doage, a celebratory throwing-in-the-air. And then they were joined by most of the ORIX players as well! Just a gigantic crowd at first base, and then, a flying Kiyohara. Kiyohara was thrown into the air by his current and former teammates. The crowd cheered, the camera flashes went off.

My view of the Kiyohara doage.

Even though I'm not a Kiyohara fan, I could suddenly see what he really meant to a lot of these people who have been following his baseball career for the last 25 years now, since he stepped into Koshien fame as part of the PL Gakuen powerhouse with Kuwata, the K-K combo. Like him or hate him, it is true he's another one of these guys who is likely to be part of the final wave of retiring Japanese baseball players who actually spent their entire career here, of the players whose careers spanned more than one generation of fans.

And then something even crazier happened: after the doage dispersed, and a lot of Orix and Seibu players were shaking hands and saying hello and goodbye -- I actually saw Alex Graman and Alex Cabrera hug each other in the shuffle -- Hiroyuki Nakajima, who currently wears #3 for Seibu, came up to Kiyohara... and started taking off his uniform jersey. Kiyohara did the same. They switched jerseys.

("Do you think it's going to FIT him?" said Simon.)

And then Kiyohara put on the current Seibu #3 jersey, to an even LOUDER round of fan cheering... and he took back the flowers, and bowed to the fans again, and waved again... and then he was gone.

After that, they had the Seibu "Final Game" ceremony. The entire team stood in a line behind home plate and Watanabe-manager gave a speech, and then Shogo Akada gave a speech as player leader (I'm like "Since when is Shogo-kun senshu-kaicho?" before realizing that CRAP, he's 28 now. When did that happen?), and then the players all threw signed baseballs into the crowd. No, we didn't catch any.

And then we left. What a night. It was already 10:25pm by the time the game actually ended, and it was pushing 11pm when we got onto a train.

In the meantime, I stopped by the Seibu ticket booth and got tickets to a playoff game on October 19! So, I WILL finally go to a postseason game! Yay!

I'm going to edit this post later and throw in photos, or maybe I'll make a separate one. I just knew that if I didn't braindump it all out now, it was going to get thrown on the backburner this week with all the things I have to do for work.

So, more later. And... I never thought I'd say it, but thanks, Kiyohara. I'm happy I got to witness a special moment in your life.

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