This game marked the debut pro start of Rakuten number one draft choice Masahiro Tanaka, the kid who broke Daisuke Matsuzaka's strikeout records in high school. The results weren't just inauspicious; this thing turned into a mess of nearly four hours, with the Hawks blowing a 6-3 lead early and it going into the bottom of the ninth tied 7-7 before rightfielder Hiroshi Shibahara came up with a man on in the bottom of the ninth and connected for his second career walkoff homer and a 8-7 Softbank victory Thursday at Fukuoka Dome to sweep the Eagles series.
Tanaka lasted all of 1.2 innings and not only had control issues with his fastball, but he had inconsistent command of his slider and catcher Akihito Fujii failed to call for Tanaka's other secondary pitches, a pretty good forkball and an okay changeup. So hitters could pretty well look for only two pitches and a lot of them were center cut, allowing them to tee off on him in the second for five runs to knock him out. His final line read 57 pitches, six runs, all earned, on six hits, and struckout three while also being victimized for three uncontested steals.
Rick Guttormson was making his first regular season start in a Hawks uniform and was up with everything and consistently behind the hitters, as he was smacked around for six runs, four earned, in six innings on six hits in a no decision. What was weird about Guttormson being allowed to go that long is that Softbank's bullpen was as rested as a manager could hope due to earlier stellar performances by starters Toshiya Sugiuchi and Tsuyoshi Wada, but Sadaharu Oh didn't resort to it and so a nice lead went by the wayside.
Softbank shortstop Munenori Kawasaki singled to left with one out in the bottom of the first. Tanaka went 2-2 to Hitoshi Tamura and proceeded to send up three juicy mistakes to the plate for Tamura to tee off on, but with two strikes and never having seen Tanaka before, Tamura looked like he was trying to feel the youngster out. Finally, Oh called for a hit and run and Kawasaki took off. Tanaka spun a big breaking slider a foot in front of the plate and Tamura chased it for a strikeout as Kawasaki went into second unmolested. First baseman Nobuhiko Matsunaka got another mistake, a shallow breaking slider in his wheelhose, but he pulled off just a hair and so it went as a rocket down the rightfield line for an RBI rather than a two run double and a 1-0 lead.
However, Guttormson walked rightfielder Koichi Isobe to begin the second and he was eliminated on a 5-4 force off the bat of third baseman Shoji Ohiro. First baseman Kevin Witt singled to right and Ohiro sped into third. Leftfielder Fumitoshi Takano singled to right and that redeemed Ohiro. Guttormson left a 92mph fastball up and out over the plate and Fujii rifled it into right to chase Witt in and Takano turned and burned at second and arrived at third safely. Centerfielder Teppei Tsuchiya flew out to right and Takano tagged up and crossed for a 3-1 advantage.
Then the night of the long knives for Tanaka commenced in earnest. In the home version, DH Brian Buchanan bounded a ball toward short, but it had so much top spin on it that shortstop Daisuke Kusano could only wave at it as it went into leftcenter. DH Katsuki Yamazaki rapped a ball headed into rightcenter, but second baseman Yosuke Takasu made a diving backhanded stop and flipped to Kusano for the force, who made a great turn, but Yamazaki brarely beat the peg to first to continue the rally. Second baseman Yuichi Honda singled to center. Centerfielder Naoyuki Omura walked to pack the sacks. Kawasaki worked the count full and then singled to right and propelled two across. Kawasaki stole second. Tamura hit one right on the screws and I thought it might be gone, but it landed deep in the gap for a two run double. Lin Ying-che replaced Tanaka and Matsunaka got a breaking ball down and over the plate and hooked it down the rightfield line for an RBI single to put it at 6-3. Third baseman Hiroki Kokubo steamed one up the rightcenter alley, but Tsuchiya ran it down. Shibahara struckout on a fine slider that had good tilt on it and the fusillade was terminated.
Guttormson, though, saw Takasu single to center in the top of the third. Kusano grounded to Matsunaka, who decided to try to throw over Takasu rather than take a step and get a better throwing lane and he flung the ball into leftcenterfield for an error. A wild pitch got the runners to third and second. DH Jose Fernandez grounded to Kawasaki, who had to go to first, and Takasu scored while Kusano went to third. Isobe lifted a fly ball to center and Kusano tagged up and scurried in to trim it to 6-5.
Rakuten would tie it in the fourth when Takano powdered a Guttormson offering into the leftfield seats and it was 6-6. Guttormson then retired the next seven in a row to conclude his night.
Lin and Koki Watanabe combined to shut the Hawks down from the third through the fifth. But in the sixth, Watanabe plunked Buchanan, who was pinch run for by Ryuma Kidokoro, who was sacrificed to second. Watanabe hit Honda with a breaking ball. Omura banged a single to center and Kidokoro found paydirt for a 7-6 edge.
That was shortlived. In the seventh, reliever Akihiro Yanase was dunned for a two out double to leftcenter by Tsuchiya and Takasu laced a shot off the leftcenterfield wall for a double that tallied up Tsuchiya to even it at seven all. C.J. Nitkowski stood in for Yanase and he got pinch hitter Takeshi Yamasaki to ground out.
Rakuten had two on and two out in the eighth and stranded them and Takasu was thrown out attempting to steal to end the ninth.
It was now Softbank's turn and with two gone, Kokubo ripped a shot between first and second off of Rui Makino. Takasu, displaying excellent range, flagged it down in short right and spun and threw to first, but it was tardy. Shibahara went after the first pitch he saw, a heater right down Broadway, and punished it well into the rightfield stands and that was the ballgame.
Tanaka was clocked at 91mph. He has much better balance now than he did in high school and his delivery is smoother, too. His fastball tends to run in to righthand hitters and when he is really on top of his slider he can get an exceedingly crisp break and nice depth. However, in this one, some of those sliders had shallow breaks and often kind of just looped up there. In the pros, well, you read what happened when he pitches like that. He has to have better command of the corners and keep his fastball down consistently. His forkball could really be a nice weapon if they allow him to throw it more. He also has a little curve ball, too.His slight hesitation when he brings his front leg up reminds me of Daisuke Miura before Miura changed his delivery to conform to new rules.
In that second inning, he threw so many pitches that he just got tired and it appeard that he was even going to cry as he went off the mound. But other than that, he was pretty composed. The stuff is there, but he needs to polish his game.
Eagles manager Katsuya Nomura averred that Tanaka never got into a good rhythm. But he also blamed everybody on the team for losing the game, basically saying, "I sucked, the coaches sucked, and my players sucked, too."
For his own part, Tanaka told the press that, "I felt my own weakness. It was a good lesson for me."
For Softbank, Buchanan was 1-2 with an HBP and is at .353.
I've already harped on Dan Serafini's travails this spring and last season, so for his fans out there, you will be glad to know that he entered Thursday's game with Nippon Ham and was superb, going 7.1 shutout innings on 103 pitches on five hits and fanned five while walking only one in his best outing since he was with Lotte in 2005, when he also had his last win. He was backed by two homers from another comeback story, DH Tuffy Rhodes, for an 8-1 Orix victory at Osaka Dome.
Brian Sweeney made his regular season Japanese debut and was spanked for three dingers, all solo jobs, in 5.2 innings of three run, eight hit ball and struckout six and walked two.
Rhodes checked in during the second and killed a slider, thundering it over the rightcenterfield wall for a 1-0 lead.
Two innings later, Rhodes got a hold of a changeup and howitzered it into the rightcenterfield stands to hike it to 2-0.
Serafini had a runner on in each of the first four innings, but they were bolted to the first base bag as he overcame those predicaments and was perfect in the fifth and sixth.
Buffs rightfielder Shinji Shimoyama clouted a shot into the rightfield stands in the fifth to make it 3-0. They then put two on and two out in the inning and wasted that opportunity.
They also had two on and two out in the sixth on a pair of walks, but again failed to convert.
Nippon Ham first baseman Yukio Tanaka doubled to right with one out in the eighth and so manager Terry Collins selected Chihiro Kaneko from the pen and he struck the next two men out.
Buffs third baseman Greg LaRocca improved his side's position in the bottom half when he poleaxed a delivery from Hideki Sunaga and lost it in the leftfield seats. Rhodes walked. First baseman Hirotoshi Kitagawa singled to left. Leftfielder Arihito Muramatsu beat out a tapper to swell the bags. Sunaga was spelled by Takehiko Oshimoto. One out later, shortstop Keiji Obiki barbecued a shot to leftcenter that initially appeared headed for grand salami time. But it lost altitude and a fan reached beyond the wall and caught it. The second base umpire immediately called interference and ruled it a ground rule double, good for two RBIs. Following another out, Centerfielder Tomotaka Sakaguchi singled to left to plate Muramatsu. Second baseman Masahiro Abe singled to right and turned Obiki in to increase the Orix cushion to 8-0.
Kaneko ran into a squeeze in the ninth when second baseman Kensuke Tanaka walked and rightfielder Atsunori Inaba singled to right. Tanaka set out for third and the relay was late and Inaba snuck into second behind it. One out later, leftfielder Yohei Kaneko grounded out to third and Tanaka busted in to make it 8-1. Third baseman Andy Green struckout and that was all she wrote.
Rhodes now needs two more RBIs to become the first foreign player ever to attain 1000 for his career in NPB.
Serafini has guts to burn. If he can be anything like he was with Lotte that will be huge both on the field and in the clubhouse for the Buffaloes.
For Nippon Ham, DH Fernando Seguignol was 1-4 and is at .263. Green was 0-4 with three strikeouts and is at .222.
For Orix, Rhodes was 2-2 with two walks and is at .400. LaRocca was 1-4 with two strikeouts and is at .389.
Rakuten phenom Masahiro Tanaka was getting knocked around the lot by Softbank,
Marines rookie Yuta Omine, who is also just out of high school, started
down in the minors against Yomiuri's farm team and got taken deep for a
two run homer in the first, but he ultimately went five innings of two
run, six hit ball and was clocked at 91mph.
Now this would be fun: they will open a set of batting cages in Chiba Marine Stadium beginning Friday with pitching machines that use video of the team's mound staff going through their deliveries before the ball shoots out of the pitching machine. They will change the pitcher everyday, so one day it will be submariner Shunsuke Watanabe and on another it might be closer Masahide Kobayashi. There is also a section for hitting into a net. That is way too cool.
ESPN here in the states will air a documentary about the Chiba Lotte Marines next March, according to Sports Nippon. Larry Rocca, who runs the team's promotions department, says that it will expose Japanese baseball to fans who don't know anything about it (well, at least those that don't read this site, Japanese Baseball.com and others). Of course, one could justifiably say that one of the reasons that U.S. baseball fans aren't as conversant with Japanese baseball as they could be is the fault of ESPN, which wouldn't even summon enough energy to broadcast the last two NPB-MLB all star series.
Seibu I wrote on Opening Day that Fumiya Nishiguchi hadn't performed the duty for the Lions since 1999. It is true that he hasn't won an Opening Day start since 1999, but the fact was that Nishiguchi started on Opening Day last season since Daisuke Matsuzaka was late in being ready due to the WBC and was the losing pitcher in a showdown with Orix. I have corrected the story I wrote. Thanks to Deanna Rubin at Seattle Marinerds for bringing this to my attention.