The difference between playing a mostly representative NPB season — as opposed to 50 or 60 games — or having it all fall apart was always as tenuous as some dinner plans.
That was laid bare last week as the league experienced its first midseason coronavirus cluster, with five Hanshin Tigers players and two staffers testing positive. The Tigers, of course, were the first NPB team to be struck by the virus, with pitcher Shintaro Fujinami and two others testing positive in March.
In this instance, pitcher Masumi Hamachi had a positive result come back Thursday. That was followed by positive virus tests for pitchers Kosuke Baba and Yuta Iwasada, captain Kento Itohara and infielder Naomasa Yokawa.
Most had been involved in one of two separate private dinners, with one group containing four people and one group with eight, on Sept. 19 in Nagoya.
“Six of the seven were present at two dinners,” Tigers general manager Osamu Tanimoto was quoted as saying to Sports Nippon during a meeting with the media in Osaka.
Hanshin took 10 players off the top-team roster — those infected and others deemed to have been in close contact — on Friday and in a corresponding move called up nine. The team utilized NPB’s COVID-19 protocols for roster moves, so some of those players can be moved again within 10 days if things change.
The Tigers then played a game against the Swallows on Friday that could’ve easily been called off and had just 17 players for games on the farm over the weekend.
Japanese baseball had more luck than MLB did early on in terms of the virus. Now the veracity of the league’s various protocols have to come to the forefront.
NPB wants to get in a 120-game slate this year, but it can’t afford to drop the ball here. Safety is the top priority. Forging ahead blindly in a mad rush to complete the season puts the Tigers and their opponents, and possibly also stadium staff and fans, at risk. The league had to step back and make doubly sure the situation is being handled properly. You don’t want scenes like in MLB where games have to be called off and multiple teams experience outbreaks.
This is why the NPB-J. League COVID-19 task force has been meeting so much, to help the leagues navigate situations like these.
So it will be interesting to see how things go from here. Certainly, NPB will be monitoring the situation. But you can bet there are also interested parties within the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee as well.
On Thursday, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach praised the gradual return of sporting events around the world, including in Japan, saying that should give Olympic organizers confidence.
A day later, the Tigers were dealing with an outbreak.
In addition to the virus, Hanshin also had other issues last week.
On Saturday night at Jingu Stadium, manager Akihiro Yano got into a shouting match with the umpiring crew after the team was seemingly accused of communicating with someone in the press box behind home plate.
The Tigers lost that game 2-1 after Yakult’s Munetaka Murakami took Fujinami deep to break a 1-1 tie in the sixth. Fujinami, who has been having a rough few years, was one the team’s aforementioned callups. He was also making his first relief appearance in seven years.
Overall, Hanshin lost 10 players to virus protocols and three games to the Yokohama BayStars and the Swallows, last week. The club ended on a high note at least, beating Yakult 9-3 on Sunday to preserve its half-game lead over the second place BayStars.
Meanwhile, the first-place Yomiuri Giants swept the Hiroshima Carp and took two of three against the Chunichi Dragons over the weekend. The Kyojin now begin this week with their magic number to win the Central League pennant at 24.
Yokohama lost two of three against the Tigers to start last week then won two against the Carp in a weekend series.
Takayuki Kajitani was a constant presence on the basepaths for Yokohama with 10 hits and five walks in three games. Young pitcher Shinichi Onuki closed out the week with 6⅔ solid innings of one-run ball to notch his seventh win of the season.
As for the teams in the bottom half of the league, the fourth-place Dragons were 4-2 and are two-games behind Yokohama as they seek an A-Class finish for the first time since 2012.
The Carp had another bad week at 1-5 and the Swallows were 2-4.
The top two teams in the Pacific League clashed over the weekend, with the second-place Chiba Lotte Marines taking two of three against the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.
The result will give the Hawks, whose lead at the top is just one game, something to think about if these two teams meet in the PL’s abbreviated Climax Series.
The Marines have had the Hawks’ number recently with a 17-8 record against SoftBank last year and a 9-4 mark so far this year.
The Marines had one of the Hawks’ old friends doing some of the damage this past weekend. Shuhei Fukuda, who left SoftBank as a free agent at the end of last season, drove in two runs in Friday’s win and was 4-for-5 with three RBIs in a victory on Sunday.
The third-place Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, however, aren’t out of the playoff race just yet. The Eagles were 3-3 last week and are 4½ games behind the Marines.
In fourth place, the Seibu Lions moved ahead of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters after a 4-2 week. The Fighters, meanwhile, were 3-3 and the last place Orix Buffaloes were 4-1-1.
Take your base: Leonys Martin.
The Lotte outfielder saved some energy on Sunday by taking leisurely jogs to first base instead of having to run. Martin was rewarded for his plate discipline against the Hawks, drawing five walks in five trips to the plate.
Hiromitsu Ochiai holds the NPB single-game record of six which he set with the Chunichi Dragons on Oct. 13, 1991.
Better late than never: Buffaloes.
Cellar-dwelling Orix is 7½ games behind the nearest team in the standings and doesn’t have much to play for as the season heads into its latter stages.
The club is still playing hard, though, and has gotten on somewhat of a roll recently. Orix has won each of its last four series and is 8-3-1 overall in its last 13 games, perhaps planting the seeds for a better year in 2021.
Nice milestone for: the Eagles.
Rakuten beat Lotte 12-4 on Sept. 22 to record the 1,000th victory in franchise history.
The club was born in the aftermath of the Orix-Kintetsu merger — the result of which is the present-day Buffaloes — and began play in 2005. The Eagles’ very first win was a 3-1 victory over the Marines, behind a complete-game effort from Hisashi Iwakuma, on opening day in 2005.
The Eagles are 1002-1170-53 overall and captured their only Pacific League pennant and Japan Series crown in 2013.
Home, sweet home for: the Lions
Seibu also reached a big number this week. The Lions defeated the Fighters 6-5 on Wednesday night to record their 3,000th win since moving to Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, from Fukuoka in 1979.
Oh, it’s you again: Kodai Senga and Yoshinobu Yamamoto.
The ace pitchers for the Hawks and Buffaloes were pitted against each other on Sept. 22, something that’s become a bit of a trend. They’ve seen a lot of each other lately, with four meetings since Aug. 11.
While their first contest didn’t quite live up to expectations, each has been good since then.
Yamamoto left their most recent matchup, on Sept. 22, with the win after striking out nine in seven scoreless innings. Senga was valiant in defeat, though, allowing just one run over eight frames with nine strikeouts.
It was a good week for: Steven Moya
The Buffaloes outfielder led the stampede at the plate this week with seven hits, four home runs and 10 RBIs.
It was a bad week for: The Tigers.
Last week was just one long headache from about Wednesday on for the Kansai club.