Saturday, July 14, 2018

Seibu Lions are winning, but bullpen could be downfall


The Saitama Seibu Lions are in first place of the Pacific League, but this season is far from over. Unfortunately, the bullpen blunders could catch up to them.

Rewind to three years ago, a similar thing happened where the Lions looked like a first place team, but a downfall occurred slightly before the All-Star break and led to a franchise record 13-game losing streak. It was the decline of Tomomi Takahashi when the wheels began to fall off when he recorded his first blown save of the season.

In 2018, the Lions have gotten away with the league's highest team-ERA at 4.30, where majority of it comes from the bullpen. Every Lions reliever has been deactivated at least once this year, including the incumbent Tatsushi Masuda.

Here's a brief look at each struggling reliever:

Tatsushi Masuda: Lost closer role in June and continued to give up base runners. In his latest outing against the Fighters in early July, he failed to record an out which led to his deactivation.

Shota Takekuma: Failed to close a game against the Carp when the Lions had a three-run lead in the 10th inning. In low leverage, he continued to either give up home runs or scoring and was deactivated during interleague play.

Katunori Hirai: Was a clear culprit at giving up home runs early, but many of them were with a cushion. Things caught up to him in interleague play and he was deactivated in June. However, he showed a resurgence in July where he struck out all four batters faced in a win against the Eagles.

Shogo Noda: Gave up several home runs early in the year and was deactivated. He was called up recently and helped preserve a one-run lead against the Eagles. Might be the best left-handed option out of the bullpen when the Lions had nearly none at one point.

Naoaki Matsumoto: A 10th round pick in 2015, Matsumoto has received mostly low leverage innings to finish mop up duty. He gives up a lot of loud contact, but not much of it has been damaging the team despite his ERA.

Neil Wagner: Initially thought to be the setup man, he continued to walk batters and everyone was able to foul off his pitches after the first month. A horrible June led to his deactivation. He was later called up after Brian Wolfe wasn't needed for an extended break, but gave up five runs with a nine-run lead in his return, leading to another deactivation. It's likely he won't return to the ichi-gun for the rest of the season with that performance.

Hirotaka Koishi: A pitcher best used in a pinch for a ground ball. Like the rest, he hangs up the pitches which allows contact for doubles and easy base hits.

Tomomi Takahashi: Coming off Tommy John surgery. Lions fans saw a snippet of him in 2017 on the road to recovery. In his only ichi-gun game of 2018, he failed to record an out and didn't look impressive, leading to what is a reported injury. At this rate, he will never return to the form he had in 2014 and the first half of 2015.

Deunte Heath: Heath was given an early audition in Kobe against Orix and gave up some hits, where the Lions chose Wagner over him at the time. He was called up again and has improved after starting this year in Toyama playing in an independent league. Currently the team's setup man.

Fabio Castillo: Initially in the rotation, the Lions made Castillo the closer once Masuda began to struggle. Castillo has done the same, but with walks. In high pressure situations, Castillo's lack of control has hurt him which have led to walked in runs and loud contact. He's better off as a starter, but the Lions prefer his velocity in the 9th inning compared to others.

Tatsuya Oishi: Received limiting playing time after not pitching in a dominant fashion. Capable of doing well against righties with his slider.

Hayato Takagi: Gave up too many hits as a reliever and did better in a starting role for a pinch. Likely not built to be on call as a bullpen guy.

Others like Tadasuke Minamikawa or Sho Ito are not included since they've only been up for a few games. 

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The Lions have continuously seen a revolving door in the bullpen due to these poor performances and it appears to only get worse with no established closer. Their options are limited, but here are some of the things I'd suggest with 2.5 months left in the season:

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Demote Fumiya Nishiguchi, promote Kento Sugiyama

Nishiguchi inherited an ichi-gun pitching coach role due the death of the late Shinji Mori. The 2017 season was his first as a full-time coach at the ni-gun level and he was already seen with the ichi-gun after Mori's death. His experience is minimal as a whole and while he's a great name, it's possible he's not ready to be coaching everyone full-time.

I truly don't know exactly what goes on behind the scenes, but Nishiguchi is the coach who sits in the bullpen on game day while Yoshihiro Doi is in the main dugout and talks to pitchers during the game. Something needs to be done as this bullpen regressed from last year.

On the flip side, Sugiyama has plenty of coaching experience and was even teammates with Nishiguchi at one point during the post-Golden Era 90s. He had a shorter playing career, but coached with the Rakuten Eagles and most recently, the Lamigo Monkeys in Taiwan for 2017.

Rather than handing someone a top job based on their playing experience or even hierarchy experience, the Lions should make a move somewhere.

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Move Heath to close, Castillo to the rotation

Heath is by no means dominant, but I think he's the best option given the circumstances. He has shown the ability to strikeout batters despite the scare and has better control than Castillo. At this point, Heath should get a look into the 9th inning. Castillo can go into the rotation again and be able to focus on knowing when he'll start, rather than being on-call.

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Make Hirai and Noda the setup men

The Lions are mostly doing this already given how both guys were better in ni-gun. They can easily go by the matchup with Hirai having extreme splits against right handed batters, but both guys could interchangeably take the 7th and 8th.

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Give Masuda a look when it's August, but ease him in

Masuda has yet to play a ni-gun game and it's likely that he's just trying to refine his game with Ming-Chieh Hsu and Sugiyama coaching him. The Lions had the right idea to demote him to a 6th or 7th inning role, but even he failed in that department up to this point. If the coaches like what they're seeing later, give him a shot back into the 7th inning for an ichi-gun game, but don't force him as a closer yet.

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Sign another import before the deadline

Teams have signed several mid-season imports as the July 31 deadline is coming up. The Lions have room for up to three players with 67 on their 70-man roster. However, two of those spots are reserved for possible ikusei promotions with Wataru Takagi and/or Masato Saito there. One spot is open and the Lions should take a flyer on someone given the glaring needs in the bullpen.

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The Lions are fortunate their offense is at the top of the league and hasn't cooled down as a whole, preventing any issues up to this point. However, this bullpen has the makings of a collapse just waiting to happen. August will be a very telling month one way or another if this team can be taken for real or not.

Otherwise, the starting pitcher will be asked to go at least seven innings every time, which is ill-advised in today's game. Do you have alternate suggestions? Let us know.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

2018 Seibu Lions Weekly Digest: Genda sets a new record

Photo credit: @n_524_photo
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The Saitama Seibu Lions went 2-1 in a series against the Chiba Lotte Marines. With the All-Star break here, they're now 2.5 games up on the Fighters with a game at hand.

Here is how it all went down:

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The first game had a battle of young pitchers with Tatsuya Imai and Keita Watanabe, who were drafted in 2016 and 2017 by the Lions and Marines, respectively. This one started with a disaster from the beginning, as Imai allowed a three-run HR to Seiya "Aja" Inoue in the top of the first. The bats for Seibu showed threat in the bottom of the frame despite not scoring, which set the tone for later.

Imai's control struggled in the second which included some batters hit, which even led to a conflict. With the bases loaded, Katsuya Kakunaka plated two more runs with a single to send Imai to the showers. Yasuo Sano came in to clean up the damage and prevent more runs on the board.

Life came around for the Lions in the bottom of the third, where the bases were loaded. Shuta Tonosaki walked to send one run in, then Takumi Kuriyama cleared the bases on a gapper. Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura tied the game off a timely single to make it 5-5.

Sano pitched a combined 3.1 innings and got the Lions through five tied, while the bats stranded the bases in the bottom of the 5th. Katsunori Hirai struck out the side in the 6th where one of them went off Takashi Ogino's hand while swinging.

The bottom of the 6th fared better for the Lions as Hideto Asamura dropped a perfect bloop single with Shogo Akiyama on third base to give the team their first lead of the game. After a walk to Hotaka Yamakawa, Chiba made a pitching change to our old friend Yasuhiro Tanaka and it backfired big time. Tomoya Mori hit a three-run HR to cement the Lions lead to 9-5.

In the 7th inning, the Lions added two more after Sosuke Genda got a ball to bounce in fair territory for a double. The Lions bullpen combined for 7.1 innings of relief after Imai's disaster to preserve the win, which was their fifth straight.

Lions 11, Marines 5

Game note:

-Daichi Mizuguchi was called up with the extended break ahead as Yusei Kikuchi was taken off. He appeared in the 8th inning as a defensive replacement for Asamura after Ernesto Mejia was pinch hitting.

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Game 2 had Ayumu Ishikawa facing Ken Togame. Togame coughed up four runs early, which two of them came from fielder's choices, but he allowed several base runners. Katsuya Kakunaka plated two runs in the third to make it 4-0.

The Lions chipped away at the lead with only home runs. This included solo HRs from Okawari-kun and Genda. Yamakawa tied the game in the 6th with a two-run blast.

Fresh off his first ichi-gun game in two weeks, Brian Wolfe came in and pitched two scoreless 6th and 7th innings. However, he loaded the bases in the 8th with two walks and a hit, finding an inability to draw a whiff. Shogo Noda came in an got a comebacker, but Ginjiro Sumitani threw the ball to right field and failed to get a 1-2-3 double play, scoring a runner. The other two runners scored on singles to secure the Lions loss.

Hideto Asamura hit a solo HR in the 8th, but it already too late.

Marines 7, Lions 5

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The final game before the break had Daiki Enokida against Yuki Ariyoshi. First blood came as Daichi Suzuki couldn't catch a throw on a fielder's choice, where Tonosaki scored from third. The Lions batted around in the 4th inning, scoring six runs, which included a two-run HR from Asamura and bases-clearing double from Yuji Kaneko.

Enokida was vulnerable the whole night, but only gave up a two-run HR to Inoue in the 5th despite allowing several base runners. Genda added insurance with two RBI hits to make it 8-2, where he had a five-hit game.

Naoaki Matsumoto and Katsunori Hirai allowed two base runners, but no runs. Deunte Heath had no trouble in the 8th, while Fabio Castillo closed it out in the 9th for the Lions' 6th win of the month. Unfortunately, Castillo struggled again where he walked in a run and loaded the bases.

Lions 8, Marines 4

Game note:

-Sosuke Genda not only had five hits, but also broke a record for most consecutive games played (while playing every inning) from the start of career at 221. He beat Shigeo Nagashima's, which took place from 1958-1959.

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The All-Star break is here and with good reason, it's nice to be on top of the Pacific League and NPB as a whole. However, the bullpen still has its flaws and the lead isn't that large. Too many pitching issues need to be fixed if this team wants to be taken seriously as a contender. Time will tell, but the relievers are still ticking time bombs.

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Sunday, July 8, 2018

2018 Seibu Lions Weekly Digest: Home runs bail out trip in Sendai


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The Saitama Seibu Lions went 3-0 in a rain-condensed week on the road against the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters and Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. They have a three game lead on the Fighters with three games to go before the All-Star break.

Here is how we got to where we are:

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The first game from Sapporo Dome had Ken Togame facing Naoyuki Uwasawa. Takeya "Okawari-kun" hit a two-run HR in the top of the second to begin the scoring. Hotaka Yamakawa delievered a timely hit in the third to make it 3-0. Shogo Akiyama and Sosuke Genda had timely hits of their own with two outs in the 4th where the latter beat out an infield single to make it 5-0.

Togame was cruising for most of the night and was forced to take a portion of the 8th inning due to an untrustworthy bullpen. While battling through a few jams, he still had 10 strikeouts on the night and didn't allow a run. With one final jam in the 8th, Deunte Heath got the final out with an infield fly.

Tatsushi Masuda failed to record an out in the 9th inning and allowed three runners to reach base. Fabio Castillo closed it out and conceded a run on a groundout as the Lions remain undefeated in Sapporo Dome.

Lions 5, Fighters 2

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The second game was scheduled for Thursday in Hakodate with Shinsaburo Tawata against Kenta Uehara. However, the game was rained out and will be made up sometime later in the year at Sapporo Dome.

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The Lions took the bullet train down to Sendai where Yusei Kikuchi had a rematch scheduled against Takahiro Shiomi. This game was also rained out and called right as first pitch was scheduled at 18:00 local time.

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After two rain outs, the Lions started Tawata against Takayuki Kishi. Hotaka Yamakawa hit a solo HR in both the second and fourth innings for most of the Lions offense off the day.

Tawata was cruising as he only allowed one hit and faced the minimum through six innings. However, he faced the lineup for a third time through the order and struggled, giving up three base runners without an out. Hiroaki Shimauchi showed bunt, but then swing and got a single through no-man's land to give the Eagles their first run. Toshiaki Imae hit a sac fly to tie it up.

Tomoya Mori slowed down all momentum when throwing out Shimauchi trying to steal and Tawata kept the game tied through seven. Takumi Kuriyama responded with a solo HR that just cleared the feces off Chia-Hao Sung to give the Lions a lead again.

Tawata allowed the first base runner to reach base and the Lions went with Shogo Noda in the bottom of the 8th. After Noda gave up another hit, he struck out the next two hitters and Kazuki Tanaka struck out against Deunte Heath to escape the jam.

Fabio Castillo hit a batter, but got a double play to end the game as the Lions won their third straight.

Lions 3, Eagles 2

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The last game of the week had Kikuchi and Shiomi squaring off once again after their initial matchup was postponed from Friday. Okawari-kun started the scoring in the top of the 5th with a timely single with two outs/

Rakuten responded in the 7th when they had two runners on scoring position with one out as Carlos Peguero grounded out and the Lions conceded to make it 1-1. Kikuchi went nine innings and gave up only one run, but some amazing defense from Shuta Tonosaki prevented more. He gunned down a runner in the second inning at the plate, while a diving catch in the 8th inning saved a run as well.

With Yuki Matsui pitching in the 10th, Tonosaki and Ernesto Mejia both hit a solo HR to the batter's eye to make it 3-1. Castillo took the bottom of the frame adn walked two batters, eventually loading the bases for Imae. The Eagles leading hitter singled and tied the game at 3-3. However, the game remained tied.

Yuhei Takanashi pitched the 11th and Shogo Akiyama hit a solo HR to give the Lions a lead again. The game still wasn't over, as Heath walked two batters and forced manager Hatsuhiko Tsuji to put in Shogo Noda to face Eigoro Mogi. Noda succeeded, earning his first save as Mogi flied out to centerfield and the Lions won their fourth straight.

Lions 4, Eagles 3 (11 innings)

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This team is still hard to watch given the bullpen woes, but 3-0 is better than losing, let alone picking up ground on the Fighters being a good thing. Can this relief pitching get better? That's the problem, because there are no signs of it. That being said, Shogo Noda played well enough to earn some more meaningful innings this weekend.

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Monday, July 2, 2018

Seven Lions named to 2018 NPB All-Star Series


A total of seven Saitama Seibu Lions were named to the 2018 NPB All-Star Series which will take place later this month. Six of them were voted in by the fans and/or players while one was selected by Softbank Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo.

Here are the Lions who made it in:

* Denotes fan vote
^ Denotes player vote
! Denotes first year player

All stats are reflective of games through July 1. Offensive numbers will show a slashline of AVG/OBP/SLG

P Yusei Kikuchi (8-1), 3.12 ERA*

This was not Kikuchi's best first half. However, he had enough popularity to win the fan vote despite missing a few weeks due to injury. In the first five games, he continued to get run support for the wins, but he's been hanging up more pitches than usual for what is supposed to be the Lions ace.

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OF Shogo Akiyama .352/434/.567*^

Akiyama is a no-doubt All-Star putting in an MVP caliber season. He's in contention for the batting title while continuing to get on base and could even hit 20 home runs for the second time in his career as he currently has 12. He's been the most consistent player on the Lions.

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SS Sosuke Genda .282/.337/.379*^

Genda's popularity shot up fast, having more votes than Kenta Imamiya both ways. It's rather impressive how his bat has found value and this year, his walk rate has improved to prevent an OPS being under .700. Defense is still there and he leads the team with 23 stolen bases. He also has seven triples on the year.

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C Tomoya Mori .288/.370/.479*

Mori's popularity has been large before he even put on a Lions uniform as was a Koshien champion at Osaka Toin. It also helped that one of the two games will be in Osaka at Kyocera Dome.

However, he's done a decent job being the catcher of the Lions in his first full season taking majority of the games starting there. It's a good thing it isn't hindering his bat either, which was one of the first concerns with him as he's in a transition year.

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2B Hideto Asamura .302/.384/.502*^

Asamura has better pop than other candidates in the Pacific League and like Akiyama, this was a no-doubt decision for players and fans alike. He could have a career high in home runs as he has 16 already on the year.

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1B Hotaka Yamakawa .272/.403/.574*^

Yamakawa has lived off a monster April and cooled off in both May and June. However, his OPS is still above .900 and already has 20 home runs as we're halfway through the season. Based on home runs and batting average, he's still at the top among 1B candidates, but he's not this dominant force like he was in April.

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OF/3B Shuta Tonosaki .291/.368/.463

Kudo selected Tonosaki as one of the last players to make the team. Tonosaki has continued momentum from last year by not only being fast on the base paths (19 stolen bases), but hitting above his own weight and continuing to get on base. He already experienced playing with Samurai Japan in the short Asia Professional Baseball Championship last fall and won a local award for being the best athlete of his home prefecture of Aomori. This All-Star appearance caps of a solid full year of work he's put in after initially starting his NPB career as an infielder.

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Remaining Pacific League roster:

P Naoki Miyanishi (Fighters) (2-0), 1.86 ERA, 16 Holds*

P Naoyuki Uwasawa (Fighters) (7-2), 2.04 ERA

P Hirotoshi Masui (Buffaloes)* (1-0), 1.64 ERA, 21 Saves

P Takayuki Kishi (Eagles)^ (8-1), 1.80 ERA

P Andrew Albers (Buffaloes) (9-1), 2.55 ERA!

P Yoshinobu Yamamoto (Buffaloes) (3-0), 0.87 ERA, 21 Holds

P Ayumu Ishikawa (Marines) (9-3), 2.17 ERA

P Mike Bolsinger (Marines) (10-1), 2.20 ERA!

P Tatsuya Uchi (Marines), (1-3), 3.09 ERA, 19 Saves

P Yuito Mori (Hawks) (0-3), 4.03 ERA, 16 Saves

P Ren Kajiya (Hawks) (2-0), 1.83 ERA, 14 Holds

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C Takuya Kai (Hawks) .230/.301/.365^

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1B Sho Nakata (Fighters) .259/.310/.500

IF Toshiaki Imae (Eagles) .296/.342/.421

2B Shogo Nakamura (Marines) .313/.399/.419

3B Nobuhiro Matsuda (Hawks) .214/.288/.433*^

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OF Yuki Yanagita (Hawks) .343/.407/.635*^

OF Masataka Yoshida (Buffaloes) .317/.389/.517*^

OF Takashi Ogino (Marines) .303/.343/.387

DH Kensuke Kondo (Fighters) .361/.466/.591*

DH Alfredo Despaigne (Hawks) .231/.337/.496^

Manager/coaches:

Kimiyasu Kudo (Hawks)

Hatsuhiko Tsuji (Lions)

Yosuke Hiraishi (Eagles)

Reaction:

Matsuda is the only funny vote among the Pacific League players for a guy batting nearly .200. Atsuo popularity rules I suppose, but Brandon Laird hasn't been lighting it up either. It's also interesting how the players took Despaigne over Kondo.

Kudo's selection of his closer Y. Mori has its own humor given how Softbank's bullpen has had its struggles, but there hasn't been many closers who've been dominant outside of Masui and Uchi. Would've gone with a better middle reliever over Y. Mori.

As a whole, the Pacific League looks like they got it right as there aren't too many name recognition votes on the past outside of Matsuda. Kai's defense is All-Star worthy for the casual fan who may not watch a lot.

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Central League All-Star roster:

Pitchers:

Daisuke Matsuzaka (Dragons) (3-3), 2.41 ERA*

Tomoyuki Sugano (Giants) (8-5), 2.38 ERA^

Katsuki Azuma (Baystars) (6-4), 2.79 ERA!

Koji Uehara (Giants), (0-3), 4.50 ERA, 7 Holds*

Onelki Garcia (Dragons) (8-4), 2.66 ERA!

Randy Messenger (Tigers) (9-4), 2.45 ERA

Yuta Iwasada (Tigers) (3-3), 1.88 ERA

Taichi Ishiyama (Swallows) (2-0), 1.56 ERA, 13 Saves

Shota Nakazaki (Carp) (0-0), 2.37 ERA, 20 Saves

Daichi Osera (Carp) (10-3), 2.62 ERA

Yasuaki Yamasaki (Baystars) (2-2), 1.29 ERA, 16 Saves*

Catchers:

Seiji Kobayashi (Giants) .230/.319/.279*^

Yuhei Nakamura (Swallows) .196/.275/.253

Tsubasa Aizawa (Carp) .333/.417/.547

Infielders:

Kazuma Okamoto (Giants) .306/.377/.506*

Tetsuto Yamada (Swallows) .286/.413/.541*

Jose Lopez (Baystars) .326/.355/.632^

Ryosuke Kikuchi (Carp) .252/.305/.395^

Kosuke Tanaka (Carp) .261/.381/.368

Toshiro Miyazaki (Baystars) .321/.364/.545*^

Kento Itohara (Tigers) .296/.401/.372

Hayato Sakamoto (Giants) .331/.418/.502*^

Outfielders:

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (Baystars) .295/.393/.603*^

Norichika Aoki (Swallows) .306/.399/.459*

Seiya Suzuki (Carp) .301/.417/.565*^

Yoshio Itoi (Tigers) .301/.409/.484^

Ryosuke Hirata (Dragons) .332/.411/.461

Wladimir Balentien (Swallows) .246/.371/.500

Manager/coaches:

Koichi Ogata (Carp)

Alex Ramirez (Baystars)

Tomoaki Kanemoto (Tigers)

Reaction:

Quite a few players got in by the fans off name recognition. Aoki, Uehara and Matsuzaka all got in based on their past and being loved for what the did well-before 2018. Among the three, Aoki can say he's done well enough to deserve a spot, but Uehara an Matuszaka is hilarious how many fans of the individual shot up the numbers.

Matsuzaka hasn't been bad, but he's mostly spot starting and it will be interesting to see if he plays or not given his injury. He will need to miss the next 10 games in the event he is too injured. Zolio Almonte of the Dragons might be the biggest snub given his offense, but have heard he's just average on defense.

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The Home Run derby will be determined by fan vote from July 3-8. The winner will be announced on July 10.

The 2018 NPB All-Star Series will begin on Friday, July 13 from Kyocera Dome. Game 2 will happen on Saturday July 14 from Kumamoto prefecture.

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Sunday, July 1, 2018

2018 Seibu Lions Weekly digest: Sayonara prevents disaster


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The Saitama Seibu Lions went a combined 2-3-1 against the Orix Buffaloes and Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles on a six game homestand for the week. They still have a one game lead over the Fighters for the Pacific League pennant, but it's hanging by a thread.

Here is how we got to where we are today:

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The first game had Andrew Albers against Ken Togame. Stefen Romero struck first blood with a two-run HR in the top of the 4th. Orix added a third run with a timely hit from Masataka Yoshida in the 5th. The Lions responded with one run back through an RBI groundout and took a second run via a timely hit by Tomoya Mori, but it wasn't enough.

The rest of the game featured the Lions stranding runners in scoring position off the Orix bullpen while Togame had seven strong innings. Naoaki Matsumoto gave up a timely hit to Koji Oshiro in the 9th to solidify the Lions loss.

Buffaloes 4, Lions 2

Game note:

-Ichiro Tamura was the corresponding move to make room for Togame.

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Game 2 had Chihiro Kaneko against Brian Wolfe. Stefen Romero hit a two-run HR like the previous night, but this time Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura responded with a solo HR to cut the lead in half. Takahiro Okada went yard in the 5th to make it 3-1, but Okawari-kun tied it again in hte bottom of hte 7th with a two-run HR.

The rest of this night was a LOB party as the Lions failed to punch in a run with scoring position for several innings. Surprisingly, the bullpen held the Buffaloes off the board too, resulting in the first tie of 2018.

Lions 3, Buffaloes 3

Game note:

-Neil Wagner was called up after the game with Wolfe taken off.

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The final game had Taisuke Yamaoka against Shinsaburo Tawata in a battle of former first round picks. This was a high scoring affair where the Lions had eight runs in the first three innings alone. Tawata also gave up five runs through six innings, but plenty of offense from Tomoya Mori, Shuta Tonosaki and Hotaka Yamakawa made it easy, as they all had a modasho.

The team combined for four home runs. Despite all of this, Neil Wagner gave up five runs in the 9th inning with a big lead and Orix made the score closer in the end.

Lions 14, Buffaloes 11

Game note:

-Wagner was taken off the roster with Tadasuke Minamikawa called up.

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The home stand continued against the Eagles with Yusei Kikuchi facing Takahiro Shiomi. Kikuchi struggled early and continued to have a high pitch count through two innings The Eagles broke through in the fourth inning with five runs, all coming with two outs as Motohiro Shima hit a timely double and Kazuki Tanaka hit a two-run HR.

Shiomi had a no-hitter through five innings, but his former teammate Shogo Akiyama broke it up in the 6th inning. Rakuten took a feast off the Lions bullpen to make the score look silly while Tonosaki had a consolation home run.

Eagles 15. Lions 1 

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The second game featured a matchup of the past and future of the Lions with Takayuki Kishi facing Tatsuya Imai. This one was over early when Carlos Peguero hit a three-run HR in the second inning. Imai eventually allowed three more runs through 5.1 innings in total, while Kishi pitched seven scoreless frames. A late timely hit from Hideto Asamura denied a team shutout as the consolation.

Eagles 9, Lions 1

-Game note:

Hirotaka Koishi was taken off while Shogo Noda was called back up once more along with Yasuo Sano.

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Daiki Enokida took the mound for the Lions hoping to salvage the final matchup against Manabu Mima. Rakuiten jumped out to a quick lead when Japhet Amador hit a two-run HR in the fourth, but the Lions responded with a three-run bottom frame after a double play was beat out by Shuta Tonosaki.

Hideto Asamura hit a solo HR in the 5th while Hotaka Yamakawa and Takumi Kuriyama added HRs in the 7th where the Lions appeared to be cruising. Enokida went six innings with that HR being the only runs he allowed.

Deunte Heath gave up a HR to Shintaro Masuda and made it a one-run game in the 8th. Fabio Castillo took the 9th and loaded the bases with two walks and a dropped ball error by Shogo Saito. He walked in a run and the game was tied. In the bottom of the 9th, the defensive replacement Fumikazu Kimura was up with two outs and had two strikes, but hit one into the batter's eye for a walkoff HR, taking the last game.

Lions 8, Eagles 7

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This was once again a negative week, but it could've been worse. The bullpen is still unreliable and the options are thin if everyone will give up hits and home runs. Offensively, the rest of the league is adjusting to the bats and it's a light concern. Yamakawa also likes padding his numbers in low leverage, lately struggling after his monster April.

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Saturday, June 30, 2018

2018 NPB Power Rankings: July edition

Swallows won Interleague Play, these rankings are adjusted accordingly. Photo credit: Japan Times
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We're three months into the 2018 NPB season and nearly halfway through the entire thing as June 30 concluded. This month's edition will will be skewered, factoring in Interleague Play besides the overall standings.

Central League fans might want to close their eyes, because it was a terrible stretch for most teams while the Pacific League continued their dominance. As usual, this ranking reflects everything up until games through June 30.

Here is this month's edition:

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1. [=] (1) Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters (41-31); 12-10 in June

The Fighters maintain a top spot by a thread after a decent June. However, there is no dominance for any team that is a clear cut #1 in NPB. Sho Nakata has picked it up lately, while the pitching has kept the team at the top. They won't be in second place for long at this pace given their rotation and bullpen being solid, but there are a lot of close wins. Based on pace of play, they should be in first place when July is over. Will this magic stop?

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2. [^] (11) Tokyo Yakult Swallows (34-35-1); 15-8 in June

The Swallows played their best baseball of the month and won the Interleague championship title, which accounts for something. Their 2018 Slogan is "Swallows Rising" and in this case, they've taken a big leap in these rankings. For a team left for dead, the pitching has taken some strides and the hitting was hot. Tomotaka Sakaguchi has been a constant dating back to last season and Tetsuto Yamada has been solid despite a lower batting average than his expectations.

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3. [^] (4) Orix Buffaloes (36-34-3); 11-9-2 in June

Orix has been on the cusp of a breakthrough and coming in the top three of interleague play has given them a boost as they're finally ending a month over .500. Pitching is still there, but the hitting has its shuffles up and down the lineup. Takahiro Okada being out temporarily won't help, but Masataka Yoshida continuing to stay healthy has been huge for the Buffaloes, who have what it takes to make a run.

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4. [^] (10)Chiba Lotte Marines (36-34); 15-8 in June

The Marines were thought to be left for dead, but they also took a huge benefit from interleague play and have been playing their best baseball of the season. Ayumu Ishikawa has had a strong rebound season, but Takashi Ogino being healthy has been the biggest reason for their offense having life, which is a unit that still lacks pop. Chiba has made up for it with speed and some improved hitting from last year's dismal season. They're only four games behind the Pacific League leaders too.

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5. [V] (2) Saitama Seibu Lions (40-30-1); 11-11-1 in June

The Lions looked like they could've taken the Interleague title themselves, but they faltered down the stretch and only went 10-8 with a failure to sweep any opponent. Their bullpen has been the largest concern and it's finally being exposed with a continuous change based on rosters moves. Tatsushi Masuda lost his closer role while Fabio Castillo goes from the rotation to closer. When Masuda is the only reliever to stay at the ichi-gun and never be deactivated, you know it's a problem. A free fall is likely to come, given how Yusei Kikuchi is also vulnerable. 

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6. [V] (5) Fukuoka Softbank Hawks (37-33); 11-11 in June

The Hawks are still in striking distance to make a run, but they're at the bottom of the Pacific League logjam due to being .500 as opposed to a winning record in for the month. The injury bug hasn't helped, but they're still a dangerous group to deal with on a nightly basis. Their bullpen has been more vulnerable than in the past thanks to Yuito Mori blowing a save against the Fighters this past week. Yuki Yanagita should still be an MVP candidate. 

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7. [V] (1) Hiroshima Carp (40-30-1); 12-11 in June

The Central League leaders take a fall in these rankings with a poor showing in Interleague play (7-11) where the only team they won a series against was lowly Rakuten. Despite the struggles at first, it could all mean nothing as they are in position to pull away from the rest of the Central League. Pitching still isn't there to be a contender, but it is enough to be for the Central. 

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8. [V] (6) Hanshin Tigers (33-36-1); 10-12-1 in June

The Tigers were nearly ranked lower in these power rankings, but a recent sweep of the Baystars prevented a further fall. Pitching is still keeping this team alive, but they're still not a good team as a whole. Hitting isn't there and they're hoping Efren Navarro can contribute as they just signed him this month. If the Tigers played the Baystars every game, maybe they'd win a pennant. Obviously that's impossible. 

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9. [V] (8) Yomiuri Giants (33-38-1); 10-13 in June

The Giants are still the same inconsistent team they've been all year. Feast or famine, but the last week being swept by the Carp gave them a bump down in what is a pile of mediocrity for the Central League. With not much separation in the standings, anything can happen. Suddenly, the closer position for th Giants is vulnerable and they're too dependent on a few starting pitchers and hitters.

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10. [V] (7) Yokohama DeNA Baystars (32-36-2); 9-15 in June

Baystars and Tigers are the largest disappointments in the Central coming off A-class years in 2017. It's hard to decide who's been worse given they're not far apart in the standings, but DeNA had a bad stretch in June where the hitting just isn't there. This team is too home run dependent, but at least Yoshitomo Tsutsugo is still fun after he had a slow April.

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11. [V] (9) Chunichi Dragons (32-40-1); 9-14 in June

The Dragons entered interleague play being right in the hunt, but they're back in the cellar where majority of prognosticators predicted they'll be. Like the Lions, their bullpen just isn't there and they're depending on veterans like Katsuki Yoshimi and Daisuke Matsuzaka to get it done, where the latter is injured. Foreign signings have been decent, but they can't play with this kind of pitching staff.

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12. [V] (11) Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles (27-44-1); 9-13 in June

The Eagles lost so much in June that their manager Masataka Nashida stepped down on the spot after they reached 20 games under .500 at one point. It's possible there was a verbal agreement from within on this, but the team has played better with interim manager Yosuke Hiraishi taking over. In five of the eight games since Nashida stepped away, the Eagles scored at least six runs. They'll be looking for individual performances to cling to in this dark time. Kazuki Tanaka would be a start, as he's looked decent since being called up.

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While this month's rankings look a little crazy, there hasn't been any dominance by any team. Parity is there and all groups have an obvious flaw in them. The Pacific League looks wide open while the Central has plenty of space open for A-class. Only the Eagles can be written off as their season is "over".

Fasten you seat belts everyone, it shall be a bumpy ride in the second half.

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Friday, June 29, 2018

Translation: Castillo sees Lions study Pacific League rivals


Claudio Rodriguez from Béisbol Japonés interviewed Fabio Castillo in Spanish while the Saitama Seibu Lions were in Fukuoka from May 22-24. While this interview took place before interleague play, there is plenty of discussion on first NPB impressions from Castillo.

Here is what we've translated into English:

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First of all, tell us how you came to Japan. How did the opportunity come to play in this league? 

"Well, last year I was with the Los Angeles Dodgers and received a mid-season offer, but due to the rules of the big leagues, they decided to include me on their [40-man roster] and couldn't come at the time. However, when the season ended in 2017, the offer was still standing and I decided to accept it."

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Did you talk to any of your compatriots who had been here in the past to ask for advice on how to adapt to the league? 

"Well, you know a lot of them go to the winter league and I always play there and my (Dominican Republic Winter League) team Toros del Este has several players who have already played here in Japan. As they are friends of mine, we started talking about the league and they told me all their impressions and told me that coming here was a very good experience."

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How has the experience of playing in NPB been so far? 

"Excellent. Every day I come to the stadium and try to gather more information, because I need it. There is still a lot of season ahead and the information I can acquire now I know will help me later."

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What advice has your teammate Ernesto Mejia given you so you can adapt faster to the league? 

"Mejia has been the one who has helped me the most to adapt to this the league. As he his a hitter and I'm a pitcher, he helps me a lot with everything, especially with the meetings we have here on the team. Umpires, for example, are very different from those in the United States and the ball here is much different from the one there. That's the kind of thing that has helped me and I appreciate it very much."

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Has it helped improve your fitness with how much you practice in Japanese baseball? 

"Yes, it has helped me to be in better physical shape. It hasn't been difficult for me to adapt because in reality, where I come from, I have always trained a lot too, so I have not been surprised by the way they work here."

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What are some differences you've observed between Japanese baseball and those of the United States? 

"My impression so far is that here, there are more studies and videos of opposing teams that are watched a lot. For example, every time I play, we always study the rival team, we see how their week has gone, how it was in their previous game, how we did the last time we saw them and things like that. Here I see more emphasis on that kind of preparation."

"It is very different from what is seen in the United States, where it is simply said that we are going to play the other team, period. The other thing I've noticed is that there is a lot of contact in this league. It's not about power like in the big leagues, but more about contact. The opposing hitters always try to get you 10 or 12 pitches and that can wear you down fast."

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The team's 2018 campaign has started very well. How do you see it for the rest of the season? 

"I have been following the team since last year and I know it is very competitive. We started very well and continue well, although we have fallen a bit, but what we have to do is keep working because there is still a long way to go. We have to keep giving our best every day."

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Putting baseball aside, what do you think of Japan as a country, their food, their culture and their people? 

"The language is very difficult as I am still trying to learn it, but with respect to the culture here, I see lots of respect. Another thing I like is tranquility. I know I can walk to the train station without fear of being robbed. I love the food, I've tried it all and what I've liked the most doesn't sting (my tongue)."

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Reaction: 

If anything, we can confirm that the Lions have wanted Castillo as early as June of 2017. The Dodgers put Castillo on their 40-man roster to prevent him from leaving overseas on 6/8/17. As a result, the Lions signed Stephen Fife as their Plan B on 6/17/17 as pitching depth.

So far, Castillo has observed what most newcomers notice in pre-game preparation, which is always eye-opening if you've never experienced it before. It's also good to know the heavy workouts in Japan are also not hurting his body, which can shock a few if they're not used to it.

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Special thanks to Béisbol Japonés for the interview and allowing permission to translate it.

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