There was something different about the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters during pregame warmups Friday at Sapporo Dome. The players were wearing their special Hokkaido appreciation tops — which are predominantly blue this year — with white pants for their matchup with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. They went through all the normal pregame machinations — stretching, batting and fielding.
The difference was they did it wearing masks.
It might have looked a little strange, but the club was taking no chances after being forced off the field for nearly a week by COVID-19.
The Fighters’ game against the Eagles that night was their first since May 2. The previous four games — including a three-game series against the Chiba Lotte Marines that was set to start last week — were postponed after an outbreak of COVID-19 within the team. Instead of hitting the field, the team was waiting for the results of polymerase chain reaction tests and wondering when it would play again.
Thirteen people, including seven players, tested positive for the virus, forcing the team to make a number of roster moves, which also led to the cancellation of some of the farm team’s games.
The club returned to the field in good form over the weekend. The Fighters won Friday’s game thanks to a home run and squeeze bunt by Kenshi Sugiya and a strong outing by Drew VerHagen, who struck out nine over five one-run innings in a 6-1 win.
Nippon Ham drove in four runs against Masahiro Tanaka in a 4-1 win on Saturday that was highlighted by Kensuke Kondo’s solo homer, his sixth of the season, in the sixth. The Fighters lost 6-3 in the finale.
The two wins were likely a relief for the Fighters after such a troubling few days.
The team was having a rough season even before its COVID-19 issues. Nippon Ham is currently 12-17-4 and bringing up the rear in the Pacific League. The Fighters have scored the fewest runs in the PL (104) and have a 3.80 team ERA that is also a league worst.
The team has fallen on hard times since 2016, when it won the PL pennant and beat the Hiroshima Carp in six games to take the Japan Series. The ensuing years have seen, among other changes, two-way star Shohei Ohtani and pitcher Kohei Arihara both leave for MLB and slugger Brandon Laird, the 2016 Japan Series MVP, land with the Chiba Lotte Marines.
Slugger Sho Nakata is still on the roster but has stumbled out of the gate with a .215 average and four home runs. Taishi Ota is hitting .219 and has only connected on two homers. Kensuke Kondo is the surprise team leader with six.
It has also been a bumpy ride for the pitching staff, and it’s possible Fighters fans should strap in for another long year. They can, at least, look forward to moving into a new stadium in a couple of years.
Elsewhere around the PL, the Fighters’ issues meant the Marines were also forced to make a late start to the week. Lotte faced the Orix Buffaloes in a weekend series, winning two of the three games.
The first-place Eagles were 2-3-1 last week, while the second-place Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and third-place Seibu Lions each went 2-2-2. The Buffaloes finished 2-3-1.
In the Central League, Hanshin Tigers rookie Teruaki Sato hit two more home runs last week to push his total for the season to 10, which is tied for the CL lead. Sato was touted for his power when he was drafted last year and has not disappointed early in his first pro season, with a couple of mammoth blasts to his name.
The Tigers were 3-1-1 last week and maintained their position atop the CL standings.
The second-place Yomiuri Giants were 3-1-1 but lost star Hayato Sakamoto to a hand thumb injury. The Tokyo Yakult Swallows, the other team in the top half of the standings, went 1-2-1.
In the bottom half of the league, the Hiroshima Carp were 1-3-1 last week, the Chunichi Dragons finished 2-3 and the last-place Yokohama BayStars were 3-3.
Touch ’em all
The Buffaloes’ Yuma Mune hit a three-run home run the hard way against the Lions on May 3 at MetLife Dome. Mune hit a ball to the center past a diving Yuji Kaneko and made it all the way around the bases for an inside-the-park home run — which is called, aptly, a running home run in Japan.
Inside-the-park home runs don’t come around often — there have only been nine since 2017. Mune seems to have a knack for it, having also legged out one of the three hit in NPB last season.
One to remember
Akira Neo was highly sought after in the 2018 draft, with the Dragons winning a four-team lottery for his rights. Neo played sparingly in his first two seasons — appearing in 11 games — but has gotten more playing time in 2021.
On May 4, the young Chunichi player hit his first career home run and did it in style with a grand slam against the BayStars.
Neo became the first Dragons player to connect on a grand slam for his first home run since Jim Barbieri in 1971. The last Japanese Chunichi player to do it was Shigeru Sugishita in 1950.
Carp rookie Ryoji Kuribayashi made history on Tuesday in Hiroshima when he held the Giants scoreless to preserve a 1-1 in the ninth inning.
That was Kuribayashi’s 14th straight scoreless appearance since the start of the season and set a new NPB mark for the most consecutive appearances without giving up a run to start a career. The Hawks’ Hiroshi Kaino set the previous record in 2019.
Kuribayashi has since increased his streak to 15 games and has nine saves this season.
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