Last week began with a crowd of 17,712 at Tokyo Dome for a showdown between the Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants, the top two teams in the Central League.
There were 15,345 fans present at the Big Egg on Sunday, when the Kyojin faced the Hiroshima Carp.
The tally for this week, however, will be zero, as Japanese baseball moves partially behind closed doors due to the start of Japan’s third state of emergency — covering Tokyo, Hyogo, Kyoto and Osaka prefectures — on Sunday Starting Tuesday, games hosted at Tokyo Dome, Jingu Stadium, Koshien Stadium and Osaka Dome will be played in front of empty seats until the measure ends, which is scheduled to happen May 11. Five games were postponed in hopes they can be played in front of fans at later dates.
The move will not change much on the field of play, but takes away the boost players get from having fans at games. Barring fans was something NPB was doing its best to avoid. Crowds are part of Japanese baseball’s distinctive atmosphere, though things were hardly normal with attendance already being limited as per government guidelines.
Through Sunday, NPB had an average attendance of 9,823 in 156 games. By comparison, when stadiums were operating at full capacity in 2019, the Chiba Lotte Marines had the lowest average attendance at 23,463.
That drop-off hit teams in the wallet in 2020. The situation was marginally better this year, with fans able to attend games from opening day. But now a handful of teams are going back behind closed doors.
While the state of emergency response was the big news off the field, plenty also happened on the diamond, including the series between the Giants and Tigers in Tokyo.
The Tigers landed the first blow, hitting five home runs — including two from Jefry Marte in consecutive at-bats — in a 10-5 win in the opener. The Giants countered with a 3-2 win on Wednesday, with Kazuma Okamoto going deep twice, and an 8-3 victory Thursday that was powered by four home runs.
Hanshin then lost the first game of a weekend series against the Yokohama DeNA BayStars before unloading in a 13-1 win Saturday. The Tigers ended the week with a bang, taking a two-run lead on a tiebreaking Jerry Sands home run to dead center in the seventh inning of a 7-5 win Sunday.
“(Yusuke) Oyama tied it up with a sac fly and I just wanted to get a ball to get us the lead and luckily it went out,” Sands said after the game.
Rookie Teruaki Sato also went deep, hitting his sixth of the year in the victory. At 18-7, the Tigers have the best record in NPB.
“So far, we’ve done a really good job,” Sands said. “Obviously our pitching staff has done a really good job keeping us in ballgames, winning ballgames, and then our lineup — top to bottom we’ve been doing a really good job working together and scoring runs when we need to and obviously it’s been showing.” The weekend didn’t go as well for the Kyojin.
Yomiuri ace Tomoyuki Sugano threw a complete game in a 2-1 win over the Hiroshima Carp on Friday, but the Giants lost the next two to fall into third place in the CL behind the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.
Yakult didn’t lose last week, going 5-0-1 in preparation for this week’s visit by the Giants.
Among the other CL teams, the Carp and Chunichi Dragons were both 2-3-1, while the BayStars were 1-4-1.
In the Pacific League, the Chiba Lotte Marines are hitting their stride after stumbling out of the gate. Lotte started last week by taking two of three against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters before a wild series against the PL-leading Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in Chiba.
SoftBank scored two runs in the ninth to rally for a win in the opening game Friday. It was Lotte’s turn to rally on Saturday. The Marines fell behind 4-0 after two innings and scored at least one run in the next six frames in an 11-9 win. Lotte then jumped out to a lead on Sunday and held off a Hawks rally for an 8-5 win.
Yasunori Yasuda and Koki Yamaguchi homered for the Marines in the finale and helped Shota Suzuki earn his first career win.
“Suzuki was really solid,” manager Tadahito Iguchi said. “There were games where the batters couldn’t give him much run support, so I’m glad everyone was able to support him today, including with some home runs.” After starting the year 0-5, the Marines are 13-5-4 and currently third in the PL standings.
The Hawks were 3-2 last week and maintained their spot atop the standings.
The second-place Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles were 2-2-1 last week, with the highlight being pitcher Masahiro Tanaka picking up the first win of his comeback, and his 100th in NPB, on Saturday.
“I have kind of a strange feeling, but I’m really happy,” he said after his win over the Seibu Lions.
Tanaka struck out four and allowed one run over six innings.
“I was able to get through it with just the one run by persevering and being patient,” he said.
Elsewhere in the PL, the Lions endured a tough week, losing five games and finishing tied in the other. The Orix Buffaloes, on the other hand, were 4-1-1, while the Fighters finished 2-3-1.
Dome run derby
The Giants and Tigers staged an impromptu home run derby during their three-game set at Tokyo Dome last week, combining for 15 homers at Yomiuri’s hitter-friendly park.
Hanshin led the way with eight to Yomiuri’s seven. Tigers infielder Jefry Marte led the individual count with three, while teammate Yusuke Oyama and Yomiuri’s Kazuma Okamoto each had two during the series.
Give and take
Things went really well and really bad all in the same game for the Hawks on Saturday in Chiba.
The SoftBank lineup churned out 19 hits — eight of the nine starters had at least one — and put nine runs on the board.
That’s usually enough to get a win, except that the Hawks pitchers had a day that was equally extreme in reverse. Starter Rei Takahashi and five relievers combined to walk 13 batters and allowed 11 runs as the Hawks saw a four-game win streak end in an 11-9 Lotte win.
The last time the Hawks lost a game when they had at least 19 hits was in 2008, against the same team and at the same stadium — though Zozo Marine Stadium was Chiba Marine Stadium back then.
Carp manager Shinji Sasaoka entrusted rookie right-hander Ryoji Kuribayashi with the closer’s role to start the season, and the early returns have been glowing. Kuribayashi walked two batters to start the ninth against the Giants on Saturday and then pitched his way out of trouble to record his seventh save of the season. He struck out the side on Sunday for his eighth.
Kuribayashi has 18 strikeouts in 12 innings and has yet to allow a run in 12 appearances. He holds the Central League record for consecutive scoreless appearances to begin a career and is one shy of the NPB mark (since the implementation of the draft), set by the Hawks’ Hiroshi Kaino in 2019.
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