SAPPORO – For a few tense seconds it looked like Ken Kato had been hit in the head by a pitch.
As Kazuhito Tadano’s offering broke inside to the right-handed hitting Kato, squared up for a bunt attempt, the Yomiuri Giants catcher’s body twisted violently toward the ground, and he immediately reached for his head and writhed around in the batter’s box as Giants manager Tatsunori Hara jogged out of the dugout.
From there, the scene took on an aberrant air.
Home plate umpire Koichi Yanada initially held his hands up and seemed to be calling a foul ball. After being attended to by Hara and the training staff, however, Kato got up and began taking off his batting gear.
Replays clearly showed Kato had avoided being hit, and may not have even gotten his bat on the ball, but Yanada ruled Kato had been hit and awarded him first base, sending the Sapporo Dome crowd into an uproar.
It was the call Game 5 of this Japan Series will be remembered for. The Giants won the game 10-2, and in fact were ahead 5-2 at the time, but even without having a direct impact on the outcome, the events of the fourth inning may be talked about for some time.
Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama shot out of the dugout and argued at length that Kato had not been hit, but Yanada would not be swayed.
“Well the ump saw what he saw, and we saw differently,” Kuriyama said after the game. “The thing is, there was a verbal misunderstanding between us and them, and I told them there was no way I could be convinced like that.”
To add insult to injury, Tadano was thrown out of the game under the NPB rule regarding dangerous pitches, even though his pitch failed to hit Kato.
“From where we were, it seemed he was going for a bunt and missed the ball, so it was a strike,” Kuriyama said. “We said we didn’t think it hit him, and the umpire said that it looked like it did. What can you say?
“But he didn’t say that initially. I didn’t mean to make him change the call or anything, because I knew it wouldn’t be overturned. I respect the umpires, but when they do something we don’t understand, we come out and talk to them.”
Catcher Shinya Tsuruoka said he thought the ball may have caught some of Kato’s bat, and hinted that Yanada had changed his ruling during the aftermath.
Kuriyama stopped well short of criticizing the umpires. He and Yanada are former teammates from their days with the Yakult Swallows in the late 1980s and he had kind words for the umpire despite the disputed call.
“He is so serious and works so hard,” the Fighters manager said. “But it didn’t matter whether I knew him or whether it was against the Giants or anything else.”
The manager was equally nonplussed about the possibility of being tossed as he continued to argue the call.
“I told him that he could throw me out of the game if he wanted,” Kuriyama said.
Kuriyama accepted that the call had gone against his team, saying it’s part of the game.
“You can say anything after you see the replay,” he said. “That’s cheating. You can’t play this game without the umpires.
“It’s not like the umpires can’t make mistakes. They are doing their best.”
Fighters fans were not nearly as forgiving. They showered Kato with vociferous booing during his two next at-bats. As Kato stepped into the box, he was met with the full brunt of the fans’ disgust in a show of vitriol that reached levels rarely seen in Japanese baseball.
Kato shook it off and hit a two run double, in the fifth and singled under similar conditions in the seventh.
“I had forgotten myself,” Kato said.
Kato, playing because of an injury suffered by regular catcher Shinnosuke Abe during Game 3, said little more about the incident.
“I panicked a little because it came near my face and I’ve been hit before,” he said, referring to being struck during a game against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows on Sept. 4, 2009.
Kuriyama was appreciative of the fans’ outpouring of emotion, probably the only positive the Fighters can take out of Game 5 as they try to put everything behind them and prepare for Game 6 on Saturday at Tokyo Dome.
“That … you don’t really see that happen here,” Kuriyama said. “I really do appreciate them for that. They fight with us and had the same level of frustration as we did. That made us so happy. I’m not going to forget about today for the rest of my life. Not because of the frustration, but because of the appreciation of the fans.
“In order to pay them back, we need to win. After seeing something like that, it really makes me feel that becoming the manager is paying off. It’s a shame we lost today, but at the same time, I feel baseball is really fun.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.