/ |

Tigers continue early-season mastery of Giants

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

To say the Hanshin Tigers have been successful against the Yomiuri Giants is a somewhat of a misnomer. It’s probably more accurate to say the Tigers have owned the Giants in the early part of the season. Refer to the 2004 ALCS when Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez remarked, “I just tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddy,” and that’s the level of Yomiuri frustration we’re approaching here.

The Tigers sent the Giants to their first series defeat at home with a 3-2 win on Wednesday night at Tokyo Dome, a game that capped a three-game sweep and was Hanshin’s fourth straight victory over the first-place Kyojin overall.

“All the players have worked hard, and we won three in a row,” manager Yutaka Wada said afterward.

The Tigers are 6-2-1 against their Central League rivals and are the only thing keeping the Kyojin anchored to the league. Through Wednesday, Yomiuri was 20-5-1 against the other four CL teams.

Hanshin’s dominance has been most evident on the mound. The Tigers didn’t allow a run in the teams’ first series of the year, and at one point this season ran off 32 consecutive scoreless innings against the Giants. Hanshin has given up more than two runs twice in nine meetings with Yomiuri.

The Tigers’ success hasn’t been limited to games against the Giants.

After finishing fifth in the CL last season, Hanshin is off to a fast start and through Thursday sat second in the CL with a 20-14-1 record, 2½ behind Yomiuri.

“I think we got into a bad rut last year, and it was just a tough year,” outfielder Matt Murton said. “I think coming back it was a clean slate, we had some new faces, and I think we got off to a pretty good start, and that’s allowed us to kind of build some momentum.”

Sorry I’m late: Wladimir Balentien was still nursing an injured groin, suffered while playing for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic, when the Tokyo Yakult Swallows opened the season. The Swallows outfielder didn’t make his debut until April 12, and since then has been making up for lost time.

As of Thursday, Balentien had only played 23 games but was hitting .313 with 10 home runs (two of which went completely out of Yokohama Stadium), second only to the 17 hit by Yokohama BayStars slugger Tony Blanco, and 28 RBIs.

Mr. Pro Yakyu: Yomiuri Giants legend Shigeo Nagashima, recently given the People’s Honor Award, always put up impressive numbers, but was at his best when the lights were at their brightest.

Everyone knows about his sayonara home run in the first game attended by the Emperor, but Nagashima also helped lead the Giants to 11 Japan Series titles as a player and in 68 games in the Japanese Fall Classic hit .343 with 25 home runs and 66 RBIs.

Now 77, Nagashima was back in the spotlight after the People’s Honor Award ceremony on Sunday in front of more than 46,000 at Tokyo Dome and the thousands watching on television. Nagashima gave baseball fans a thrill by slipping into his old No. 3 uniform and stepping into the batters box to face protege Hideki Matsui during the ceremonial first pitch before the Giants faced the Hiroshima Carp.

Matsui’s pitch was high, and Nagashima swung and missed, as is customary. Although, as revealed during a press conference afterward, Nagashima may have had something else in mind.

“The ball was around my face and I couldn’t hit it, but I’m happy to have swung the bat again after a long time,” Nagashima said. “I think I would’ve hit it had it been a good pitch.”

Mayday, mayday: Toshiya Sugiuchi gave up three home runs in a 5-0 loss against the Hanshin Tigers on Tuesday.

“I was really missing with my slider,” Sugiuchi said after the game.

On it’s own, the result isn’t surprising. Sugiuchi is a good pitcher, and good pitchers have bad games from time to time. What was out of the ordinary is that this game was in May, a month when the Giants lefty is usually more or less unbeatable.

Before the loss, ‘Mr. May,’ as Sugiuchi is sometimes called, had been 28-8 during his career — 20-1 since 2007 — in the month of May.