The Hanshin Tigers’ pitchers need to step up.
The past several days have been hard on the Tigers, with the team watching its top two pitchers go down with injuries in a span of five days. Now it’s up to the rest of the rotation to help keep Hanshin moving forward as it fights battles on two fronts — namely trying to catch the first-place Hiroshima Carp (7½ games ahead to start Saturday) while also maintaining an edge on the third-place Yokohama BayStars (three games back) in order to finish no worse than second in the Central League.
Tigers ace Randy Messenger (11-5, 2.46 ERA) was knocked out of Thursday’s game against the Yomiuri Giants when Shinnosuke Abe banged the 1,997th hit of his career off the pitcher’s right leg. Messenger was diagnosed with a broken fibula on Friday and it’s unknown if he’ll make it back this season.
“It’s going to take some time,” Tigers pitching coach Isao Koda told Daily Sports on Friday afternoon. “I haven’t heard the exact results of the tests, but it looks like he got hit in a bad place.”
That came after Takumi Akiyama (9-4, 2.94) suffered an injury to his right thigh during a game against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows on Sunday.
With Hanshin’s top two pitchers taken off the active roster, and Messenger’s return uncertain, the rest of the rotation is about to be shoved into the pressure-cooker.
Minoru Iwata got them off to a good start on Friday, tossing seven innings of one-run ball in a win over the BayStars.
“I don’t think I can do it alone,” Iwata said during the hero interview on Friday. “I think everyone will have to come together and do their best until Randy comes back.”
In addition to Iwata (2-0, 2.60), Atsushi Nomi (3-6, 3.71 before he started on Saturday), Taiki Ono (0-6, 4.58) and Koyo Aoyagi (3-3, 2.91), among others, could be called upon to step up and help fill the void on the mound. There might even be a chance for Yuta Iwasada (4-9, 5.28), who was so ineffective Tuesday night the team sent him back to Osaka during its game at Tokyo Dome, to redeem himself.
Although Messenger and Akiyama are a combined 7-1 with a 2.08 ERA since July 1, the other pitchers who have started during that period are 4-9 with a 5.40 ERA. Plus Messenger, who leads the team in wins and the CL with 147 strikeouts was taking the ball as much as possible, going out on five days’ rest (as opposed to the normal six in NPB) in all eight of his starts after June 23, going 4-2 with seven quality starts over that span.
More nights like Friday, when the Tigers’ offense produced an eight-run outburst, and the pitchers held the BayStars to one run on four hits, would help ease the burden.
“There was a feeling that we had to fill the hole Messenger left,” manager Tomoaki Kanemoto said to Sports Hochi after the game.
That won’t be easy to do, but Hanshin may have a wild card waiting in the wings in righty Shintaro Fujinami. The young star has been on the farm since May 27 because of control issues, but should be making his return to the top team in the near future. He’ll be returning under a lot of pressure to perform at an elite level with Messenger perhaps set to miss a considerable portion, if not all, of the stretch run and possibly the Climax Series.
Fujinami pitched in a Western League game on Thursday, holding the Carp to one run on four hits over five innings.
“There were good balls and bad balls, but on the whole I pushed through,” Fujinami told reporters according to Nikkan Sports.
The Tigers had been expected to bring Fujinami back up prior to the recent injuries. If he’s over his control issues, he’s walked 33 batters (and also hitting three) in 40⅔ ichi-gun innings, the Tigers could have the key to weathering the storm without their ace.
“I don’t know how it (promotion) is (being) decided, but I think I’m fine,” Fujinami said.
The Tigers are counting on it after being thrown one heck of a curveball this week.