Interleague Series 1: Yakult @ Lotte, 20-21 May 2014

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I Love Interleague play. I always say this and it’s simply true. There’s some changes I would make to the format – the proposal to split the play into two halves, one earlier and one later in the season – makes sense to me, but as it stands the set of short, two game series against all the CL teams is pretty neat. One of the highlights for me is the 2 series with Yakult as I follow Yakult a bit and have been known to cheer them on at Jingu when Lotte is off or out of town.

The common observation is that on par the PL is much stronger than the CL this year, with no real “dead weight” among the PL teams. Yakult sort of sits on the boundary of the top teams and the bottom teams as the offense is the best in NPB right now – a team batting average near .290 with the most home runs – but the pitching has been shocking. They are a dangerous team.

This series will feature starts by Wakui and Furuya – the bats really need to come alive to give Our Marines a shot at winning.

Game 1 - Lotte SAYONARA WIN 9x-6 (Click to Expand)

Yakult: Masato Furuno (2-2, 4.50 ERA) @ Lotte: Hideaki Wakui (2-5, 3.61 ERA)

By Steve Novosel A thrilling start to the 2014 interleague play as Our Marines took an early lead, coughed it up, only to come back to tie the game at the last possible moment and win it in impressively dramatic fashion. Do you like future stars smashing sayonara home runs? Of course you do.

from marines.co.jp

from marines.co.jp

To be honest, while sitting in the stands late in the game, I was writing an entirely different post in my head, one of blown leads and very dodgy decision making. But all of that was washed away with the events later in the game. Let’s see how it happened.

From the Start
The frequently brilliant but occasionally awful Wakui got the call to start, and unlike his other other starts this season he was quite… meh. Wakui tends to be many things, but middling has not been one of those. Yakult got to him in the first frame as two out singles by Kawabata and Balentien prefaced Yuhei grounding up the middle. Cruz got a glove on it but couldn’t land the flip to second, Kawabata in and a 1-0 Swallows lead.

That lead didn’t stand for too long, though, as the Lotte bats arose from their recent slumber in the second against third year pitcher Furuno. Saburo (starting in left as there are no DHs in PL parks for interleague this year) cranked a double off the left field fence. Actually by all rights Saburo should have been out at second but the throw/catch were quite poor and Saburo was able to come in safely. Cruz stroked a dying liner that looked sure to be a hit before Balentien made a nice play. After Kakunaka drew a walk, Imae plated Saburo with a single to right, and Yoshida did the same for Kakunaka with a single to center – a 2-0 Chiba lead.

But there was more – Yoshida smartly advanced to second on the throw home, so when Wakui grounded out there were only two outs instead of three. A walk to Okada loaded the bases, and Captain Daich unloaded them with a nice two run single to right, making it a 4-1 Lotte advantage after 2 innings.

Lead? What Lead?
If Wakui & Co had merely held on to that 3 run advantage you can rest assured I would not be cranking out 1000+ words on this game. No sir, the first game of interleague play demanded drama, so drama is what we got.

Tokyo clawed back one of the runs in the 5th via a timely single off the bat of up-and-coming second baseman Yamada, but Kakunaka took it right back with a timely single of his own in the bottom of the 5th to maintain the 3 run lead with a 5-2 score.

Wakui would not make it any further in this one as he was pulled after allowing a walk, single, and Yuhei timely single, all with no outs in the 6th. In came the sentimental favorite of WLM, Uchi. Uchi, who has been not very effective (to be generous) since his recall from ni-gun 2 weeks ago. Don’t look too deeply at this game’s box score – Uchi was not very good. All the runners Wakui left on base – Uchi allowed them to score (one run was unearned due to an error on an ill-advised attempt at a hero play by Yoshida) along with one more for good measure. The 5-2 lead at the start of the inning turned into a 6-5 deficit at the end of it. Egads.

And when a chance was brewing in the Lotte Lucky 7 – Saburo and Kakunaka on second and first, respectively, with two outs and Imae at the plate – Saburo managed to get picked off to end the inning. You can be 100% sure that had Our Marines ended up losing tonight, that POSBLAN (picked off second like a nincompoop) would have been exhibit A in the game story.

Desperate Times
The post-Uchi relievers kept the game tight – a total of 4 IP, 3 hits, 2 walks for the Carlos Rosa/Ohtani/Matsunaga/Masuda combo, most importantly with no runs allowed (though there was a very close call with Balentien hitting a ball very, very, very hard but very, very, very high off Rosa). Yakult’s rookie pitcher Akayoshi was absolutely dealing as well, though, with 2 Ks in the 8th and a pair more to start the 9th.

That’s right, Our Marines had their backs all the way to the wall in the bottom of the 9th, with a hot pitcher shutting them down. Something was needed. Something…. Iguchi-like.

Iguchi’s been a bit banged up as of late and this month has been slumping badly. But tonight, the veteran 1B stepped into the box, identified the first pitch as a slider in the zone, and mauled it over the left center fence.

BEDLAM at QVC – Iguchi does it again as he has done so many times in his long career. A game tying homer, a fresh 6-6 score!

Unbelievable! I think I’ve never seen the infield unreserved area go so crazy!

On to the 10th – Masuda blazed through the Yakult lineup in the top half, so what could Chiba do in the bottom? Kyuko took over for Akayoshi versus the bottom of the Lotte lineup. Cruz and Kakunaka went down via line out and strikeout, respectively (Kakunaka did a wonderful job of staying alive, though), but Imae scratched out a walk to give Our Marines a bit of a chance. Kanazawa up (in for Emura who took over for Yoshida) – single to left. Interesting – runners on 1st and 2nd with two outs, Katoh up.

Katoh of course should be starting, but for some reason he isn’t. He entered as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the 6th and laced a double down the line from the right side. He’s back on the right side to face the lefty Kyuko, and after falling behind 1-2 he works the count to full. Outfielders way in to guard against Imae scoring from second. The pitch is a slider right down the pike – Katoh pummels it, it’s plenty long! The outfielders don’t even move, it’s over the left field fence for a 3-run SAYONARA!

Truly incredible! See the swing below:

If the embedded video doesn’t work click here.

Katoh has hit three home runs at ichigun:
1) The first pitch he saw, ever.
2) The 450′ (minimum) blast in the Climax Series at Seibu Dome
3) This Sayonara smash.

Dude’s a stud, for sure. He needs to play!

So after just about 4.5 hours and 11 pitchers, Our Marines run off the field winners. What a lovely start to the interleague play.

Game 2 - Lotte WINS 9-6 (Click to Expand)

Yakult: Masanori Ishikawa (2-3, 4.56 ERA) @ Lotte: Takuya Furuya (3-2, 3.12 ERA)

By Steve Novosel Chiba over Yakult by a 9-6 margin? Big three run Katoh Shohei home run? Didn't we do this just yesterday? Yes, yes we did, though this one wasn't nearly as dramatic as Tuesday's thriller as Our Marines piled on Tokyo starter Ishikawa early and the pitching threw just enough solid frames to secure a victory.

from marines.co.jp

from marines.co.jp

If you want to see Our Marines win a game in much the same way as they did on Tuesday, but without all that pesky stress and drama, look no further than Wednesday’s game. That’s right down to the shaky starting pitching too, as Furuya pulled his best Naruse-in-Sapporo imitation early on, just quite a bit more lucky.

Most of the drama in this one is loaded right up front. Furuya ran into trouble immediately, though it really needs to be said that the box score for the first inning is a pack of lies. Yes, New Lefty Ace gave up 4 hits and a walk including a 2-run single to Yuhei, but what you need to know is he totally escaped the inning before most of that. The scene: Yamada on first, one out. Shingo Kawabata grounds a ball towards second, Daichi gets a glove on it, it’s going to be a double play but Daichi slips on the wet turf – everyone safe. That would have been outs two and three but instead it’s ruled an infield hit, and the hit parade was on. Still, looking at a 2-0 Swallows lead isn’t the worst in the first inning.

Quick Comeback
Yakult veteran starter Ishikawa has been their best starter as of late, with a CG shutout and an 8 IP, 2 run game in his previous two outings. On this night, though, he was nothing but awful. With one out in the first, Daichi and Iguchi (back in his customary 3rd spot in the lineup) drew walks, and newly minted cleanup hitter Luis Cruz1 brought in Daichi with a single for the first Lotte run of the game. After a Kakunaka ground out (with Kakunaka beating out a DP at first), Imae doubled to deepest center to score Cruz and tie the game. Next up with two outs – Tuesday’s hero Katoh Shohei, he of the triumphant 3-run blast on the last pitch he saw. The first pitch he saw in this contest was a high changeup, and yet again Shohei cranks it into the left field stands for a 3-run homer! AMAZING! 5-2 Chiba after 1 inning.

1Many people including myself were surprised by Itoh’s decision to put Cruz in the cleanup spot. But you know, even before the game started I decided I liked it. A lot. Cruz has hit with some homer power this year and a heck of a lot of doubles. I think it’s a perfect example of giving a guy who has performed well for your team the opportunity to do even more – and boy, did Cruz.

Unfortunately for Lotte aficionados, no excuses can be proffered for Furuya’s second inning – 3 more Tokyo hits and a walk meant 2 more runs, and that nice 3-run cushion was cut back to a 5-4 Lotte lead after 1 1/2 innings.

But the Chiba bats were far from finished as well – 4 consecutive hits by the heart of the order including a 2-run Cruz double off the center field fence and an RBI single by Kakunaka stretched the lead even further – an 8-4 margin after 2 full innings. Would the scoring ever end?

A Saner Experience
Of course it would. Furuya worked a quick third but managed to get embroiled in jams in both the 4th and 5th innings before extricating himself with no damage (except to his WHIP). The 5th was the end of New Lefty Ace’s night – 5 IP, 11 hits, 2 walks, 4 ER, eeeeek. Could have been a heck of a lot worse, though.

Our Marines did not find themselves in many scoring chances for the later frames. Singles by Katoh (as a righty) in the third and Iguchi (natch) in the 4th went for naught. In the bottom of the 5th Katoh singled again (this time as a lefty) with one out, and with two outs Furuya was pinch hit for by BRAZ – and given such a choice opportunity, Braz promptly doubled in young Katoh to run the lead to 9-4 Chiba after 5.

Yakult wasn’t done scoring, but really, this game was no longer in doubt. Otani pitched two innings in relief, the first perfect and the second, less so – one run in on a pair of hits. Carlos Rosa threw a perfect 8th (on 4 pitches, no less. 4!), and Nishino finished it off with an 11 pitch 9th. OK, OK, OK, it wasn’t a perfect 11 pitch 9th, there were a pair of 3-pitch strikeouts with a pesky Yuhei home run mixed in, but still. Final score, 9-6 Chiba.

Strangely enough that’s 3 in a row from the Men of Lotte, and a solid start to interleague. It gets a wee bit more challenging for the next series – Friday and Saturday with hated Yomiuri at QVC.

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