Baseball / Japanese Baseball | The week in NPB

Tigers back on prowl in Central League

by Jason Coskrey

STAFF WRITER

Turns out a 2-10 start to the season didn't cost the Hanshin Tigers all nine lives after all.

The Tigers, who looked like an early candidate to be the worst team in NPB at the outset of this strange season, have gradually been turning things around since the calendar flipped to July.

Their resurgence continued last week at Koshien Stadium, where Hanshin took two of three against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and swept the Chunichi Dragons.

Hanshin was in last place and eight games under .500 on July 2. The club is now 12-12 and in third place in the Central League.

"No one gives up, no matter the situation," veteran Kosuke Fukudome said during his hero interview on Sunday. "We're able to play while understanding our roles."

The club has been hitting better, pitching better and seems to be settling into the rhythm of the season.

While slugger Justin Bour has gobbled up much of the limelight at the plate, infielder Kento Itohara has been quietly helping push things along. The Tigers captain went 10-for-21 with a home run and five RBIs last week.

Overall, Itohara is batting .312 in 77 at-bats and is on an 11-game hitting streak.

"I'm just doing my best for the sake of the team everyday," he said from the hero interview platform Saturday night.

If he keeps it up, he'll be a valuable weapon as a table-setter for Bour and Co.

Speaking of Bour, he and Jerry Sands are still making progress in their first NPB campaign.

Bour went 0-for-18 out of the gates but is 22-for-61 with five home runs since then. On July 15, he was 3-for-5 with a homer in a win over the Swallows.

Sands, meanwhile, hit safely in five of Hanshin's six games last week, contributing with a home run, five RBIs and some nice defense in the outfield.

"I don't think there's a real secret," Sands said during Sunday's hero interview. "There's a saying that hitting is contagious. I think we've all been doing a really good job, having good at-bats and I think it's kind of brushing off on me as well."

Combined, Bour and Sands are batting .325 with seven home runs in July.

Fukudome, meanwhile, is showing life in limited action at age 43, going 2-for-2 with a two-run home run and four RBIs on Thursday and then having a 3-for-3, four-RBI night Sunday.

"I think it's a little too good to be true, but it's good," Fukudome said of his night on Sunday.

There's also been a big jump in the bullpen. Per Deltagraphs, Tigers relievers had a 10.01 ERA in 10 games in June. They've posted a 2.91 ERA in their 12 games this month.

The Tigers may be on the rise, but it's come at home.

Hanshin began the season with 14 straight road games and went 4-10. The last 10 have been at Koshien, with the team 8-2 over that stretch.

The Tigers will start this week at home against the Hiroshima Carp, during which pitcher Shintaro Fujinami is expected to make his season debut. After that, they'll hit the road again for a six-game trip.

The CL's top team, the Yomiuri Giants, also had a good week. The Kyojin limped into the week on a four-game losing streak and then won six straight, sweeping past the Carp and Yokohama BayStars.

Kazuma Okamoto in particular terrorized the Carp, homering in all three games and driving in nine runs. On Sunday, he provided the difference in a 5-3 win over the BayStars with a two-run shot in the ninth.

He's currently tied for the CL lead with nine homers overall.

The other four CL teams all lost more than they won last week, with the Swallows going 2-3-1, the Dragons 2-4, the Carp 1-4-1 and the BayStars 1-5.

In the Pacific League, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks continue to look like a sleeping giant about to awaken.

The three-time defending Japan Series champions rolled through the Orix Buffaloes last week, winning five of six at Kyocera Dome.

Manager Kimiyasu Kudo shook up his lineup late in that series, installing Akira Nakamura as his cleanup hitter for the final three games. Nakamura was 5-for-10 with a home run and three RBIs in those three contests.

Even so, Yuki Yanagita was the star of the week. The SoftBank outfielder had seven hits, including a home run that hit the lights at Kyocera Dome on Saturday, and five RBIs during the series.

On the mound, Kodai Senga continued to ease his way back into shape while Shuta Ishikawa tossed six shutout innings in a win on Saturday.

Ishikawa, who was rocked in his first start of the year, has now allowed just one run in his last 19 innings.

The Hawks, who have won nine of 12, are second in the standings.

The only thing that kept them out of a tie for first is the six-run seventh inning the league-leading Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles used to rally past the Seibu Lions on Sunday afternoon.

As usual, Hideto Asamura was in the middle of it all, tying the game with a two-run double before his team went ahead and won 9-5.

Asamura finished the six-game set 6-for-18 with a pair of home runs and seven RBIs. He seems to get a kick out of facing his old team. Last year, his first with Rakuten, Asamura hit .303 with 11 homers in 25 games against the Lions.

He's batting .330 overall this season with 11 home runs and 35 RBIs.

Even though the Eagles won three of the five games played (the first was rained out) they still probably couldn't wait to get Seibu slugger Hotaka Yamakawa out of Sendai.

Yamakawa started the series 0-for-5 before homering in each of the last three games and driving in seven runs in that span.

The Fighter and Marines alternated wins in other PL series last week.

Family mattered: for Giants manager Tatsunori Hara on Tuesday.

The Kyojin's victory over the Carp that night gave Hara his 1,035th victory in charge, putting him in sole possession of second place in franchise history.

The winning pitcher was ace Tomoyuki Sugano, who is also Hara's nephew. Interestingly, Sugano was also the winning pitcher in his uncle's 800th and 900th victories.

Zach Neal: is still streaking.

The Seibu Lions pitcher improved to 2-0 this year with a win over the Eagles on Friday.

That victory was also his 13th straight winning decision, dating to last season, which ties a franchise record for a foreign pitcher.

"That's pretty unbelievable," Neal said. "That's all part of being on a really good team. Without them, without the guys behind me, without how strong our hitters … that's just part of being on a great team."

Welcome to the club: Kaima Taira

On Sunday, the Seibu Lions reliever threw a 160-kph fastball to Rakuten's Stefen Romero, becoming the sixth Japanese player in NPB history to hit that mark.

It was a good week for: Shota Dobayashi

The Carp infielder has been on a tear to start the season and kept it going last week. Dobayashi was 12-for-25 at the plate and also had a home run.

He's hitting .434 in 21 games this season and has been moved up to No.3 in the lineup.

It was a bad week for: the Yokohama BayStars.

Yokohama started the week with a victory over the Chunichi Dragons. That's as good as it got as the club dropped its next five games.

Sunday's loss probably came with a little extra punch, with closer Yasuaki Yamasaki failing to protect a one-run lead in the ninth.

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