Baseball / Japanese Baseball | The week in NPB

Eagles soar to front of line in Pacific League after strong week

by Jason Coskrey

STAFF WRITER

As NPB teams continue to adjust to the rhythm of a strange season, the top two squads in each league flexed their muscles a little bit last week.

In the Pacific League, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles welcomed the surging Chiba Lotte Marines, riding an eight-game win streak, to Sendai with a 15-4 beatdown in the opening game of their series on June 30.

The Eagles then proceeded to win four of the next five to improve to 11-4 overall.

“We’ve only just started,” skipper Hajime Miki said during the manager’s interview Sunday. “Our goal is just to continue to play our style of baseball in each game.”

Hideto Asamura led the way with four home runs and finished with nine RBIs during the series. His tiebreaking three-run shot in the fifth on Sunday helped put the Eagles on the way to an 8-1 win.

“The job of the No. 4 batter is to live up to expectations,” Asamura said during the hero interview. “The pitchers were also doing their best. “I’m glad my result led to the win.”

Asamura is off to a blazing start to the season, hitting .352 with seven home runs and 22 RBIs.

In the Central, the first-place Yomiuri Giants were 4-2 on the week, taking two games each against the Yokohama BayStars and Chunichi Dragons.

More importantly, two of the club’s biggest stars were back to looking like themselves.

Ace pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano flirted with a no-hitter against Chunchi on Friday, “settling” for the first shutout of the NPB season. Sugano struck out 11 and allowed his only hit on a seventh-inning double by Dayan Viciedo.

“I was aware of it,” Sugano said of his no-hit bid. “I think (catcher Takumi) Oshiro was aware of it too, I told him “don’t focus on it too much, let’s be bold at a time like this.”

Yoshihiro Maru, who was hitting .143 entering the week, also got going. Maru was 8-for-22 with three homers and 10 RBIs in six games last week.

Another player trying to shake off a slow start is Justin Bour of the Hanshin Tigers.

Bour hit his first NPB home run on Wednesday against the Dragons and notched his first grand slam in Japan on Sunday against the Carp. He also had a 3-for-4 performance on Friday night and has at least one hit in five of Hanshin’s last six games.

The Tigers, meanwhile, won two games against the Carp, after a rainout on Friday, to win their first series of the season. The club, though, is still stuck in last place.

Elsewhere, the Carp had two rainouts and four losses in a disappointing week, the BayStars were 3-3 and the Tokyo Yakult Swallows won three of five.

In the PL, the Orix Buffaloes avoided becoming the first team to be swept in a six-game series twice by going 3-2-1 on the road against the Seibu Lions, snapping a seven-game skid in the process.

The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, meanwhile, were 3-2-1 in their series against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

It’s been a while: since NPB has seen a foreign player behind the dish.

That particular wait ended Saturday at Tokyo Dome, when Cuban Ariel Martinez slipped on the mask for the Dragons in the bottom of the sixth inning and became the first foreign player to catch since former Dragons player Dave “Dingo” Nilsson, who did it in 2000.

On Sunday, Martinez became the first foreign catcher to start since Lotte’s Mike Diaz in 1991. He may get more chances to contribute if he keeps hitting like he did Sunday against the Giants, when he went 3-for-4.

“His condition has been good since last year,” Dragons manager Tsuyoshi Yoda said during his onfield postgame interview. “He had an injury during the offseason but he’s really given a great effort.”

Seeing old friends: went well for Eagles infielder Daichi Suzuki and pitcher Hideaki Wakui, who faced their former team, the Marines last week.

Both players joined Rakuten this past offseason.

Suzuki, a former Lotte captain, homered in the first game and finished the six-game series 11-for-26 with four RBIs.

Wakui, a former No. 1 starter for Lotte, took the mound on Wednesday and allowed two runs over five innings in a winning effort.

Surpassing the teacher: is what Giants manager Tatsunori Hara is about to do.

With his next victory as Yomiuri manager, Hara will break a tie with his former manager and mentor Shigeo Nagashima and sit alone with 1,035 victories, second-most in team history.

After passing Nagashima, which he could do this week, the final target for Hara will be Tetsuharu Kawakami, who holds the team record with 1,066 victories.

Change of scenery: is what Central League teams will be experiencing this week.

In an effort to limit travel, CL clubs are sticking close together and playing in the same regions. After spending the first couple of weeks in the Kanto region, the scene shifts this week to Osaka, Nagoya and Hiroshima, giving the Tigers, Carp and Dragons more chances to play at home.

Pack your bags: Lions and Swallows players.

In another quirk of the revised schedule, the PL’s Lions and CL’s Swallows had 15 straight home games scheduled to start the 2020 season.

The long homestands resulted in a 7-7-1 record for the Lions and a 7-7 mark, with a rainout, for Yakult.

On Tuesday both will finally hit the road for the first time, with the Lions traveling to face the Marines and the Swallows visiting the Dragons.

Seibu will now be on the road for the next 12 games, while the Swallows will be visitors in their next 15.

It was a good week for: Wladimir Balentien, who celebrated his birthday week in style.

The Hawks slugger turned 36 on July 2 and hit a pair of homers that night and added another the next day. In six contests last week, Balentien had four-straight multi-hit games, three home runs and 10 RBIs.

It was a bad week for: Brandon Laird.

After playing a big part in the Marines’ six-game sweep of Orix, Laird went just 1-for-20 last week against Rakuten.

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