Let’s all stand back for a minute and marvel at Teruaki Sato.
The Hanshin Tigers rookie is just 15 games into his career and already among the players generating the most buzz in NPB.
Sato produced one of the early highlights of the season on Friday night, hitting a ball out of Yokohama Stadium during the Tigers’ 9-2 win over the DeNA BayStars. Sato didn’t hit it out in the traditional sense — as in he simply left the yard and put a run on the board. No, the 22-year old belted a solo homer clear out of the stadium in an impressive show of power.
“It was a little high, but it was a good pitch to hit and I was able to hit it well,” Sato said. “I got some advice from the manager and head coach before the game and was able to make some adjustments to my swing.” A stadium worker later found the ball — proof the monster shot did, in fact, land somewhere — and it was given back to Sato, who said it’ll be a present for his grandfather.
“I’ve never seen a ball hit out of Yokohama Stadium,” Tigers pitcher Shintaro Fujinami said, later noting the surprise in the Tigers’ dugout. “Everyone was like, wow” Sato was drafted to great fanfare last year and the anticipation was amped up by his play this spring.
While he’s got three homers in the regular season, he’s only hitting .196, though he’s currently on a three-game hitting streak. Sato has a long way to go and a lot of adjustments to make against much better pitching than he saw in the spring. So expectations have to be held in check, and he’ll need room to grow.
Still, there’s palpable excitement when he steps to the plate. People like to see big home runs and Sato has already shown he has power to spare. Once he starts to really get his bearings and becomes a better all-around hitter, he could be must-see TV.
The Tigers drafted Sato in hopes he can be one of the missing pieces of their offense.
But while he’s still finding his way, the Tigers are actually off to a pretty good start.
Hanshin is leading the Central League with 65 runs and is second with 12 home runs. That’s even with Yusuke Oyama, the club’s 2020 home run leader, still looking for his first of 2021. The Tigers have also been on the move on the basepaths, leading the CL with 13 stolen bases.
Jerry Sands, in his second season in NPB, has been leading the charge at the plate. Sands is batting .292 and has five home runs and 15 RBIs. Kento Itohara has started the year 24-for-60 (.400) with a homer and eight RBIs.
Itohara had three hits in a 3-2 win over the BayStars on Sunday. Rookie infielder Takumu Nakano also had three hits and drove in a run in just his second game in the starting lineup.
“I was given the chance to start so I thought I should do something,” Nakano said. “I went into the game with a strong feeling.” The first-place Tigers won five of their six games last week and are 8-2 this month, giving them momentum going into a showdown with the Hiroshima Carp this week.
The Yomiuri Giants are trending in the other direction The Kyojin have been hit by COVID-19 and are having a tough time without a couple of key players, going just 2-4 last week.
Elsewhere around the CL, the Carp split their six games last week, the Chunichi Dragons and Tokyo Yakult Swallows were 2-2-1 and the BayStars won twice in six games.
In the PL, the first-place Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles began their weekend series against the defending champion Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks with a pair of ties. Saturday’s game, however, probably felt like a win after the Eagles rallied from seven runs down to earn an 8-8 draw.
The Hawks got the last laugh, winning Sunday’s series finale 2-0.
Rakuten was 3-1-2 last week, while SoftBank won four games and tied its other two.
As for the other PL teams, the Seibu Lions won just twice in six games, the Chiba Lotte Marines were 2-3-1, the Orix Buffaloes had one win, two ties and three losses, and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters were 2-3-1.
The Hawks are going to be without ace Kodai Senga for two to three months, the club announced Saturday.
Senga badly twisted his ankle while catching a comebacker during a game against the Fighters on April 6. He was diagnosed with ligament damage in his left ankle after being examined at a hospital in Fukuoka on Friday.
In addition to missing games with the Hawks, Senga will likely also miss the chance to pitch for Samurai Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.
The Marines put together a huge inning against the Buffaloes on April 7, tying a team record with three home runs in the seventh.
Leonys Martin, who leads NPB with seven homers, hit the first and was followed by Hisanori Yasuda and Yudai Fujioka later in the frame.
Martin was also in the mix the last time the club had a three-homer inning, on Aug. 13 of last year against Nippon Ham.
Home runs have been a rare sight for fans of Fighters and Dragons.
The Fighters didn’t register their first homer of the year until their 10th game and only got their second on Sunday, when Yuto Takahama hit the first of his career.
The Dragons also got their second of the season on Sunday, courtesy of Takuya Kinoshita.
That gives the two so far powerless clubs four combined home runs this year, fewer than the individual totals of Leonys Martin, who has seven, and Ryosuke Tatsumi, Jerry Sands and Munetaka Murakami, who all have five.
Doing his part
Hawks shortstop Kenta Imamiya went into the record books on Thursday by laying down the 306th sacrifice bunt of his career to become the all-time PL leader.
Imamiya is currently fourth all time in Japanese baseball. Masahiro Kawai, who played for the Giants and Dragons, holds the NPB record with 533 sac bunts.
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