Monday, May 18, 2015

Lions Weekly Digest: Back to Earth?

In what should be a common format for Graveyard Baseball, there will be collaborating commentary from Wes Mills and Christian Gin each week on the Saitama Seibu Lions' season throughout the year.  This is the first edition of what should be many more to come.

The Seibu Lions concluded the eighth week of the the 2015 NPB season with a 2-3-1 record. This included a series win in Hokkaido, while they went 0-2-1 in Fukuoka against the Hawks.

Overall, they went 3-5-1 on the road trip which included a loss in Chiba last week. Where does this team go from here?

In Hokkaido, the Lions had a brilliant outing from Ken Togame, who has rebounded from a bad first outing going 4-0 since then. As of 5/18, he is 10th in the Pacific League in WHIP at 0.953. While he has allowed runners on base, Togame has shown he isn't scared of threats in scoring position. He kept his location down and has mixed in some off speed pitches to get the ground out or fly out.

The Lions also took Game 2 in what was a spot start from rookie and 2014 second-round pick Yasuo Sano. He went four innings with three earned runs, one unearned due to an error from Hideto Asamura. It was an ugly second game, where the Lions failed to get a shutdown inning.

This included a shaky finish by Esmerling Vasquez, where he walked in a run and loaded the bases all with two outs. Setup man Tatsushi Masuda had a wild pitch in the seventh inning, but got a key strikeout to prevent more damage. He would later concede another run in the eighth inning, but would get a ground out and strikeout to preserve the lead at 8-7.

Tomomi Takahashi would close the 9th inning even though the tying run was on second base. In a game that featured offense, including key hits from SS Yuji Kaneko and a resurgence from the captain Takumi Kuriyama, the Lions escaped as they took the series in what was a spot start replacing the injured Ryoma Nogami.

After securing the series victory in a wild game 2, a date with the Fighters' 20 year old phenom, Shohei Otani was up next. And Otani was as good as advertised, he had everything working and as a result, Lions hitters were swinging wildly at all his pitches and never really got a good read on what he was doing.

Luckily for the Lions,  the American lefty, Wade LeBlanc was good enough (with the help of some sharp defense) to keep the Lions level with the Fighters and keep their hopes alive of a clean sweep.

The critical moment came in the bottom of the 8th, with two on and two out, Jeremy Hermida came up with Wade LeBlanc still in the game. With two strikes on Hermida, LeBlanc threw Hermida a curveball that got too much of the plate and Hermida was able to show enough strength and pull the outside pitch into the gap for extra bases. Hermida ended up all the way at third for a two-run triple to give Otani a 2-0 lead heading to the 9th.

The Lions showed great resiliency in the 9th by chasing Otani from the game, it would be Hideto Asamura who would give the Lions hope of ruining Otani's gem. Otani would make a rare mistake on a hanging slider and Asamura was all over it and lined it to right, the Fighters' right fielder tried to dive for it and came up short and the ball bounced all the way to the wall. Akiyama scored easily from first to make it 2-1 Fighters and Asamura ended up a third.

This forced the Fighters to pull Otani and put in their closer, Hirotoshi Masui. With two outs, Ernesto Mejia came to the plate needing a hit to extend the game. He'd get a pitch to hit and he crushed it to the opposite field, this time, the Fighters' right fielder would make up for his high risk gamble earlier in the inning and he'd make a full extension catch to rob Mejia and salvage game 3 of the series for the Fighters.

The Lions went to Fukuoka with a bullpen that was rested from not playing the last game in Hokkaido, but were sent down to earth. Their bats couldn't execute enough in what was a pitcher's duel in Game 1, where Kazuhisa Makita went seven strong innings.

Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura had a golden opportunity with the bases loaded, but struck out as did Ernesto Mejia in the eighth inning and the Lions failed to score for the rest of the game. The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks had a chance in the 12th after celebrating what would at least be a tie.

They had runners on first and second with only one out and the Lions were down to their last two bullpen members in Yosuke Okamoto and Kazuki Miyata where the latter finished the game. Manager Norio Tanabe gave Miyata a baptism of fire in his 2015 debut with the inherited runners, but was able to get a lineout to shortstop and Kaneko tagged second base to secure a tie game. Replay showed that Kaneko cradled the ball, but it would have been a 6-4-3 had it bounced.

Luck was not on the Lions' side in Game 2, where it was only a one-run game before a meltdown in the sixth inning. After starter Yusei Kikuchi had runners on base, Tanabe had Atsushi Okamoto get one batter out before calling in reinforcements by placing Y. Okamoto after  Miyata, which ultimately backfired. Miyata walked two batters on eight pitches and Y. Okamoto would give up a grand slam to Yuki Yanagita.

Game 3 had a strong outing from Taiwanese rookie Chun-Lin "Kaku" Kuo, who went seven innings where he allowed only a solo HR to Keizo Kawashima in the fifth inning. The Lions bats couldn't come through against Jason Standridge, who is now 2-1 vs. Seibu this year.

Masuda had a disastrous inning, where he allowed a bases clearing double in the eighth, putting this game out of reach. It was the second time this year that Masuda gave up a three-run double to the Hawks this season. Nakamura had a solo home run for his ninth of the year, but it wasn't enough.

We have learned that the Lions are not the best team in the Pacific League, as it was expected by prognosticators and experts. Their offense is capable of being one of the best with the power hitting from Asamura, Nakamura, Mejia and Tomoya Mori.

However, the biggest surprise has been the pitching, where the starting rotation consisting of Makita, Nogami, Togame and Kikuchi. Even LeBlanc and Kuo have put in a handful of respectable outings as the back end starters.

Fukuoka is the best team in the Pacific League, but the Lions remain an intriguing team for how solid the defense has been combined with the good range in the outfield. They have allowed the fewest amount of triples in the Pacific League as well as near the top in team ERA.

This week, they're facing a Chiba Lotte Marines team who has been a thorn in their side with good pitching from former Lion Hideaki Wakui and Daiki Ishikawa. This could be a challenging week if the bats continue to not execute as they scored a combined eight runs in the three games on the Kyushu Island.

They also host the Rakuten Golden Eagles for the final weekend before interleague play begins on May 26. Things were down this week, but the team is far from out of it after the bats were cold. Nogami is expected to return and is eligible for the 28-man roster on May 20.

A 4-2 record for this homestand would go a long way towards maintaining pace as a top-3 team. It's easy to expect a sweep of Rakuten after going 7-1 against them through eight games, but teams could always be due for a victory here and there. Ganbarre Raionzu!

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