Should the Hanshin Tigers be worried about the “road trip of death?” Sure, it sounds ominous, as do most things when you tack “of death” onto the end, but it’s not nearly as bad as in the past. Either way, the team has to face it now.
The Tigers were full of life at home in Koshien Stadium on Friday night, earning a 5-4 win over the Yokohama BayStars on a sayonara single by Kosuke Fukudome in the 10th inning. Rain washed away the next two games of the weekend series, and preparations for the stadium to host the National High School Baseball Championship, which starts Saturday, begin this week. So the Tigers won’t play another game in their home ballpark until Aug. 27. They’ll play five road series and also “host” six games at Osaka Dome during that span.
Their extended time away from home came to be referred to as the shi no rodo or “road trip of death” through the decades as many past Tigers teams returned to Koshien after the grueling jaunt with their pennant hopes having been dealt a fatal blow.
It’s not as taxing these days, thanks to advances in travel and Osaka Dome and Kobe’s Hotto Motto Field, as it’s known now, having sprung up.
Even so, the trip still manages to shake the team out of its normal routine. Former Tigers reliever Jeff Williams described the experience to Japan Times columnist Wayne Graczyk in 2004, saying, “It’s 27 days living out of a bag. Even with the three games at Osaka Dome, when you get to go home at night and sleep in your own bed, much of that time is spent washing clothes and packing for the next segment of the road trip.”
Since 2005, the Tigers are 89-92-7 over the period when they’ve had to vacate Koshien Stadium. The team has alternated between winning and losing records during the trip each year over that span. Hanshin was 14-9 last season.
As always, the shi no rodo falls right in the middle of the pennant race, and this year the Tigers are in the hunt.
Hanshin leaves home in second place in the Central League, 2½ games behind the first-place Yomiuri Giants and one ahead of the third-place Hiroshima Carp. Finishing first means not playing a road game until the Japan Series — not to mention an automatic 1-0 advantage in the final stage of the Climax Series — and finishing third means having to win a three-game and six-game series on the road before getting a chance to play at home in the Japan Series.
So there is a high premium on Hanshin playing well away from home to stay in the race.
Then again, the 2003 team went 4-11, yet hung on to win the pennant. Hanshin later, somewhat ironically, lost all four road games against the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks during that year’s Japan Series.
A few years ago, pitcher Atsushi Nomi dismissed the “road trip of death” as an old wives’ tale. Even if he’s right, playing on the road is not without its perils.
No NPB team has done particularly well away from home this season. The Giants have NPB’s best road record at 23-19, with the Tigers 24-23 and the and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks 24-23-3. No other team is above .500.
So, no, there might not be a boogie man waiting for the Tigers on the road, but they’ve still got a hill to climb.
The club leaves home solidly in the mix to compete for its first pennant since 2005. The challenge is to make sure it comes back that way.