Make no mistake – this looks to be a very good Chiba Lotte Marines squad in 2012! You only need to see the last four games to know this is the case. Yes – the team went only 2-2 in these four games, and yes, one of these games was a shutout loss, but these last four games reveal the strengths (and weaknesses) of the team.
Look at Thursday’s game vs Rakuten – our number 6 pitcher (Shunsuke) vs arguably the best pitcher in the PL (Ma-kun). The unheralded Lotte bats managed 9 hits and three runs and was really a lucky bounce or two away from more. Shunsuke didn’t have a very good start (telling us that we need to go with 5 starters, not 6, but you knew that already) and Rakuten got some good breaks (bloop hits that dropped in) and the game went their way. But the very fact that the team can compete on a day where the luck is not going their way against a great pitcher says volumes.
Friday – the opening game of the Seibu series – also showed what we can expect the rest of the year. Good – Naruse was great. Complete game, 7 hits, 5 Ks, only one run. Bad – notice we lost this game? Sometimes the bats are going to have an off night. This was the second shutout loss (along with 2 1-run losses) this year. This teams is going to need to lean on its very solid pitching all year. Also bad – BUNTING. Not the actual act of bunting – though that has been plenty bad at times, but the decision to bunt is just baffling. You would think the experience of game 6 of the 2010 Nippon Series alone would be enough to have the coaching staff rethink the “play for one run” strategy, but no. I don’t want to dwell on it THAT much – though I did at great length on Twitter – but let me set the scene.
We are down 1-0, bottom of the 9th. Ishii has pitched great but is tiring. Nemoto leads off with a double – great chance, especially with no outs. Ishimine is up – just gotta play it safe. So… BUNT. Jeez. The pitch is high and tight, Nemoto takes a big lead off second, Ishimine struggles to get a bat on the ball but does… popping it up to Hoshi… firing to second to get Nemoto for the double play. There’s just no excuse for it! See, this is going to be our biggest struggle this season – the players trying to overcome such short-sighted thinking. It was proven to be so short-sighted by the next turn of events – single by Kakunaka, single by Iguchi. The game should have been tied, one out in the worst case, when Saburo lined out to end it.
Lotte players are playing so hard this year! They know how important it is to have a strong season after last year, and a strong season begins with beating the piss out of Seibu. 2 more games in the series and Our Marines had to win them both to win the series. And they did win on Saturday behind nice pitching from Karakawa (still the Baby Faced Killer, though he turns 23! this year) and Super Rookie Masuda, a homer from Saburo, and a timely two run double from the ascendant Kakunaka (now starting and leading off). It got pretty tense in the 9th with Yabuta getting in to a big jam in the 9th, but getting out of it to record the save.
The series would come down to the final game – 22-year old Fujioka vs soon-to-be-40 Nishiguchi. Honestly, this was the most tense, most exciting game I have seen since 2010. Fujioka – he was OK, not great, but pitched well enough (6 2/3, 6H, 6K, 5 BB, 2 ER). Nishiguchi – also not too bad. Seibu took a one run lead in the 4th thanks to a RBI double by CF German (OK, I honestly had no idea what his name was or nationality as the katakana ヘルマン was no help. Hellmann? German makes sense, though). Seibu put two more in the books after Fukuura muffed a ball at first with one out and two on.
Here comes the comeback. Tanaka (starting in place of the injured Satozaki), Okada, and Kakunaka (again!) single to load the bases, and Nemoto (again!) brings two of them in with a double. Add a sac fly from Iguchi (which could have been more) and we are all square at 3-3.
Seibu 7th – Fujioka gets in a jam and gives up the tie-breaking run to Okawari-kun. Ohtani comes in to take over for Fujioka, now on the hook if Lotte can’t make a comeback. But of course Our Marines can and will make a comeback!
Lotte 8th – with one out Iguchi strokes a double. Saburo singles him in to tie the game, just like that! But the inning isn’t over. Fukuura is plunked to put runners on first and second, with Captain Imae at the plate. And he singles to shallow left! Saburo sprints around third and is heading home, but third base coach Sato has the stop sign up. Saburo sees it late, hits the brakes and dives back to third, but Okawari-kun has already taken the relay and is also diving to third… out. Damn.
Runners on first and second, Kiyota is up. He’s been heating up, what can he do? Well from my view in the 1st base A seats, I saw him lift a deep ball over the head of Kuriyama. Honestly, off the bat I thought it would be caught but the outfield was in a bit and Kuriyama could do nothing but sprint and hope. Hope doesn’t catch balls, though, and Kiyota’s deep ball drops in for a 2-run triple! Mayhem! Yabuta comes in for another tense save, but it’s still a save, and Our Marines take the series against the hated Lions.
I can only hope that the rest of the season is as interesting and yes, exciting as the first month has turned out to be!