Happy 2014 from We Love Marines! Now that the 2013 season is officially in the books with Rakuten as champs and Our Marines in a strong second place1, it’s time to review some of the players and moments that made this season so memorable.
I would have gotten around to this a bit earlier but I was a bit (OK, more than a bit) bummed by the end of the season. I think it worked out OK in the end as some extra time gave me a chance to let the memories of the season settle in my mind.
1What’s that you say? The Giants would be considered second since we didn’t even make the Nippon Series? Pish tosh. We would have crushed those guys, sure as anything.
Steve’s 2013 MVP – Toshiaki Imae
There are quite a few candidates for this honor – Iguchi putting up great stats at age 39, Imae – resurgent, Furuya anchoring the rotation late in the year, Matsunaga delivering both from the pen and the rotation.
Surprised by my choice? Don’t be. Based on offensive stats Iguchi is a more logical choice, I agree, as Iguchi had more homers, doubles, and walks than did Gori. While this was not Imae’s best offensive season ever – that’s probably 2010 – it was arguably his second best, and more importantly he got better at the plate as the season went on, eventually finishing the season #2 in the PL in batting average, #10 in doubles, #6 in game winning hits (with 12). He was also a more patient hitter, reaching a career high in walks and near his career low in strikeouts.
But what sets him apart for me is his defense. Imae’s always been a bit of a mixed bag at the hot corner, but I thought this year was the best defensive year I’ve seen from him. He played with greater range, quicker reaction time, and with just as strong an arm as ever. I thought he was the best 3B in the Pacific this year as well as the team MVP.
If anybody from the past – say 2012, or even May 2013 – saw this post and saw me choose Furuya as the WLM pitcher of the year in 2013 they’d think the world had gone completely mad. Furuya? 32-year-old middle reliever? The guy who has only thrown more than 20 innings once in his career? What the heck is going on here?
What’s going on is Furuya slipped into a broken starting rotation in June2 and basically single-handedly kept Our Marines on track for A-Class. There were some stray thoughts that he might be OK as a starter – he threw a no-no at ni-gun earlier in 2013 – but before 26 June of last season he had never started a game at ichi-gun. In that first start, though – magic, and almost history.
2It’s interesting how well Naruse’s and Furuya’s seasons dovetail. Naruse was exiled to Urawa at basically the same time Furuya joined the rotation. Combine their two seasons and you get a pitcher who went 15-5 with a 2.86 ERA. Not too shabby.
Even after that amazing first start, Furuya kept up the sterling pitching for the rest of the season. His second start was not so good, but after that one he won every decision including three straight decisions surrounded by team losses. In other words, when Our Marines were sinking in July, Furuya was the life preserver keeping the team afloat. Furuya went 9-1 in 15 starts on the season with a 2.73 ERA, a team-leading 1.08 WHIP, 7.69 K/9 and 2.6 K/BB.
There are quite a few choices for this one. There’s our 4 rookies for a start – Matsunaga, Kawamitsu (injured all year), Tamura, and Katoh (more on him in a minute), but also Kawamoto (joining via trade with Yakult), Nishino (promoted from Ikusei to the full roster and to ichi-gun all season) and Braz (signed as a free agent in July).
Strong contributions were made by Nishino, Braz, and even Katoh but my vote has got to go to our first round pick Matsunaga. Matsunaga appeared in 58 games on the season, 52 as a setupper and the final 6 as a late-season starter. As a reliever, he got into a few spots of trouble but mostly was a “bend, but not break” sort of pitcher. 48 of his 52 relief appearances were clean slates, no runs allowed, and in 22 of those he allowed no baserunners at all. His 58 appearances – reduced by moving to a starting role the last 5 weeks of the season – were third in the league.
As a starter, while he was not dominant and had difficulty going deep into games (no start longer than 6 innings – not so bad considering he had never started before) the team won 5 of the 6 starts he made, and in 3 of the 6 he gave up no runs. I’d say that total body of work was enough to make him newcomer of the year.
Special note on Katoh Shohei – he flat-out dominated ni-gun with power, speed, and getting on base while playing a premium defensive position. In limited ichi-gun time he provided two amazing moments: his first pitch homer in his first ever appearance, and his monstrous bomb to mega super ultra deep right in Game 1 Climax Series First Stage. Watch him in 2014.
Steve’s 2013 Most Improved Player – Daichi Suzuki
I went back and forth on this one, for there are many great candidates. There’s the already mentioned Imae – batted 70 points higher with more homers, doubles, walks, and even a few steals. There’s Carlos Rosa – coming back from a disappointing 2012 to be one of the top 2 relievers on the team, a rock in the bullpen, and a strikeout machine. But no, for me it’s young Daichi Suzuki.
Our second year shortstop played in his first full season and turned into an unquestionable star. All Star, Pacific League Best Nine, team leader. He played great defense and is expected to move into a captain’s role in the future. Any time a guy can step up from a part time player as a rookie to an anchor in the lineup and in the field, he’s going to get my vote for most improved.
I might add that he hit a homer for the first run scored in the most crucial game of the year – ooh, foreshadowing!
Steve’s 2013 Game of the Year – CS First Stage Game 3
A bit of an obvious choice I must admit. But how could it be any other game? Easily the most critical game of the year, and the most exciting one as well. I fell down on the job a bit with this game, actually – in the excitement of the thrilling win I failed to make a game writeup. But it was SO exciting we hung around after the game for hours – literally, 5 hours – singing and socializing and chatting about the game and all things Lotte. It was a festive mood.
A reminder of the background of the game: Seibu made a huge run in late September and early October to not only swipe a climax series spot from Softbank but to push past Our beloved Marines for the second spot in the PL. So instead of a 3 game set at QVC, we had to travel to Tokorozawa and win 2 of 3. The first game was no problem – an 11-1 laugher punctuated by homers from Iguchi, Saburo, and most memorably Katoh. We felt great. But in game 2, big trouble – a 15-0 destruction, with poor Fujioka taking most of the brunt in long relief.
Yes, game 3 was critical, and all the momentum we stole from the Kittykats in game 1 was gone, gone, gone after game 2. Itoh-kantoku went to The Baby-Faced Killer for the start, a bold move given the extreme variability of the young pitcher from Narita in 2013 (2 of his last 4 starts were shutouts; he was immolated in the other two). But Karakawa was up to the task in this one, giving up just 3 hits and no runs through the first five innings.
At that time Our Marines were up 2-0 thanks to 1) Our rising star Daichi’s surprise homer (and oh, does he love hitting them off Seibu pitchers!) 2) A huge jack by Iguchi to center. Karakawa gave up a leadoff double in the 6th to Kataoka followed by a single by Kuriyama, so with the extremely dangerous Asamura coming to the plate Itoh-Kantoku pulled Yuki for Uchi. Uchi gave up a fly ball to Asamura – deep enough to score the swift Kataoka and make it a 2-1 game. Still in a bit of a jam, Uchi convinced Akiyama to helpfully ground into a huge inning saving double play.
On to the 8th inning, it’s still a 2-1 game. Uchi has just finished his second inning of work and likewise Seibu’s Sarfate has entered his second. The mood in the stadium was so tense3. Sarfate plunks Okada to lead off the inning but strikes out Iguchi – Watanabe-kantoku went to the pen for his former ace, then his ace-in-the-pen Wakui.
3One thing I need to point out is my role in the stadium’s mood. Unlike in game 1 where Craig, Ron and I sat in the raucous ouenseki, or game 2 where I moped along the outside walkway, I was sitting in the 1st base infield reserved sections with the inimitable Keigo, long-term Lotte fan and contributor to the site in 2014. We had seats right on the main concourse so it was easy to jump up and down and move around. This section was maybe 40-50% Lotte fans or so, and we were working hard as our own little ouendan.
I had been joking on Twitter for some time at how funny it would be if Wakui – at that time an impending FA who was rumored to (and ended up doing so) want to sign with Lotte in the offseason – would cough up a game-winning hit to Our Marines then tear off his Lions uniform to reveal a Lotte shirt underneath. You know, WWE style. Well Wakui was totally dominant out of the pen the last weeks of the season so this sort of joking seemed incredibly unlikely, but there we were in a situation where Wakui was a key figure in a crucial game.
Wakui’s first batter is MVP Imae – walk. Lovely. Okada’s stolen second and made it to third on a bad throw by Ginjiro, so the walk’s not that painful for Seibu. Up next, Kakunaka. La-La-La-La, Kakunaka. Chance time. Kakunaka takes Wakui’s first pitch and gaps it! Okada scores, Imae scores, that 2-1 lead is now an insurmountable 4-1 lead! Wow!
You can see the hit in the video below – forward to ~10:45 or so.
I jumped from where I was standing by my seat and into the concourse before that ball even reached the ground. I ran up and down that concourse like a total lunatic. I high-fived everyone, hugged everyone, we sang, we screamed. Series over.
The funny thing was, it was really season over – we didn’t know it at the time but that was really the end of the season for Our Marines. Williams replaced Wakui and struck out 5 straight batters, and in Sendai we did basically nothing. Going into the CS First Stage, if you told any of us fans we could have a win in that series and no more would we take it, secretly most of us would have said yes. I think the season’s goal was accomplished with that swing by Kakunaka.
The Year in Summary
Going into the season most pundits had Lotte picked 6th in the PL, and those that didn’t had us in 5th. Expectations were as low as it gets. Sure, Chiba was in first for a good chunk of the year, and had a real chance of getting back to first as late as late August so perhaps ending up third was a disappointment, but given the injuries and the gaps in the lineup and the low expectations a third place finish and a trip to the CS Final Stage made for a great season to me.
The thing is, that great season has really raised the expectations for 2014 – but friends, after 2000 words in this post, I’ll leave that speculation for another day.