Sunday, June 14, 2015

Lions Weekly Digest: Kikuchi close to a no-hitter; Mejia carries the offense

The Saitama Seibu Lions had another winning week, going 4-2 against the Hiroshima Carp and Yakult Swallows, winning both series in the process. It was a productive home stand keeping pace with the rest of the Pacific League, while gaining some ground on Chiba, who was as close as one game behind a week ago.

Game 1 against the Carp looked like a pitcher's duel on paper with their ace Kenta Maeda (Mae-Ken) on the mound vs. Ken Togame. However, Mae-Ken had an off game, where the Lions had a base runner in all but one of his eight innings pitched.

The Carp drew first blood when a solo home run from Ryuhei Matsuyama, but the Lions answered back on an improbable RBI single from Ginjiro Sumitani. Ernesto Mejia put the Lions ahead on an RBI double, but Nate Schierholtz tied the game in the next frame with a solo home run of his own.

It wasn't until the eighth inning where the wheel fell off for Maeda. After allowing a lead off single to Anthony Seratelli, he threw the ball away on a pickoff attempt towards first base to advance the runner 90 feet. Sumitani would single to put runners on the corners and Yuji Onizaki would walk to load the bases with one out.

Shogo Akiyama was the hero on an opposite field gapper to left field, scoring two and keeping the Lions up for good. Tomomi Takahashi would finish off the Carp for the Lions' third straight win. It was a game where the Carp manager left Maeda in too long and his control was off for the night.

Togame had a decent outing where he only allowed three hits, but the two solo home runs prevented him from getting a win. He stranded a go-ahead runner in the top of the 7th and Tatsushi Masuda did the same in the 8th, where he earned his first win of the year.

Game 2 started promising for Ryoma Nogami, as he was cruising through five innings, but damage was done in the sixth after Seratelli initially put them ahead 2-1 on a gapper with two outs.

Norio Tanabe subbed out Nogami and there were two runners on base for Shota Takekuma. He gave up a bases clearing double from Kosuke Tanaka, giving the Carp a 4-2 lead.

The Lions would strike back in the bottom of the 8th, with an improbably RBI double from Tomoya Mori thanks to an error in left field by Seiya Suzuki. Ryota WAkiya would then tie the game on a pinch hit RBI single, but Akiyama couldn't be the hero when batting next. There was also a controversial call on a 6-4 groundout from Takumi Kuriyama.

It appears from the photo that Wakiya was safe on the ground ball, which would have extended the inning with the bases loaded, but it ended as a 4-4 tie after eight innings. The bottom of the 9th would be a nightmare as Hideto Asamura and Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura single to leadoff. However, Naoto Watanabe couldn't get the bunt down, which resulted in a 2-5-3 double play and killed any rally chances. After Mori was intentionally walked, Seratelli struck out to end any threat.

The top of the 10th is where it all crumbled, started with an error on Wakiya to begin the frame. After a barrage of hits, Takahiro Arai broke the tie with an RBI single up the middle off Masuda. After a walk to Brad Eldred, Tanake would get his second bases-clearing double of the night which broke the game open with an 8-4 score. Masuda had his 4th straight outing with runners on base and this time it would haunt him.

Game 3 against the Carp had high expectations for Takayuki Kishi. He had an average outing though, with four earned runs through five innings. He gave up some early hits to put Saitama in a 2-0 hole. Consecutive hits by the Lions top 6 in the bottom of the 1st made it 3-2 after the first inning, which included RBIs from Asamura, Okawari-kun, Mejia and Mori.

Kishi had a rough third inning. With two outs, he had a runner on second and the reigning 2014 Central League home run king Brad Eldred took one yard for a no doubter and a 4-3 Carp lead. The Lions would tie it up with a two-out RBI single by Kuriyama in the bottom of the 4th with two outs. In the top of the 5th, Kishi struggled again, with runners on the corners and one out, but he was able to get out of the jam forcing a ground ball for a 1-6-3 double play and his night was over after 102 pitches.

Even though it was a 4-4 tie, the bullpen would hold their ground from two shutout innings from Esmerling Vasquez. Masuda stranded two runners on base, but was unscathed after the previous night's outing.

The 9th inning had its drama starting with a pinch hit single from Yutaro Osaki. Pinch runner Shotaro Tashiro would prevent a double play, but taking a leadoff on a routine ground out where Akiyama would have hit into one.

After Kuriyama walked, Asamura also grounded into what would have been a 6-4-3 double play. However, Tashiro kicked the ball as it crossed his path. We have no idea if this was deliberate in order to prevent a double play, but it kept the Lions alive for the time being. Okawari-kun walked and was pitched around, giving Mejia a chance after already having an RBI hit. He found a pitch and put it in the gap for the Lions' first Sayonara win of the season.

This was the start that reminded the Lions fans that Kishi is still finding his footing in the 2015 NPB season. He showed flashes of the Kishi we like to see, but continued trouble with pitch location cost him in this outing. Kishi has had issues with the home run ball his whole career, so this is going to happen but we know he's better than this. His home run against Eldred was the result of the right pitch, but wrong location. We expect a much sharper, Takayuki Kishi going forward.

Game 1 against the Yakult Swallows saw the worst outing of the season from Kazuhita Makita. He has not had a win since May 8, but brought in several quality starts leading up to Friday's 9-3  loss.

Makita continued to give up several in play hits with two outs and just couldn't catch a break. Tetsuto Yamada had a bases clearing double with two outs in the third inning, ending any hopes of this one being close. He only lasted 2.2 innings giving up seven runs in the process, making the game out of reach right when it started. By our count, he has only had two poor outings with the other coming against the Orix Buffaloes on April 18.

Game 2 saw a barrage of runs in the bottom of the 1st from the top of the Lions order. With runners on base, Okawari-kun pulled a gapper down the left field line for the first blood. With two outs, Ernesto Mejia blasted a no-doubt 3-run home run with a golf swing for his 11th of the year. He would add on in the fifth inning with a two-out, two-RBI single with runners on second and third to make it five total RBIs on the night and give the Lions a 6-0 lead.

However, the story last night was Yusei Kikuchi, who flirted with a no-hitter for the second consecutive start. Last week against Yokohama, he had 5.2 innings without a hit before a bloop single ended his chance. This time, he went 7+ innings where he had four walks and another runner on base through an error on Asamura.

In the third inning he was shaky with his location as there were two walks with one out. He was able to rebound with a strikeout and ground ball to end the threat. Kikuchi appeared to have settled in through seven innings and a high pitch count of 137 total. In the eighth inning, Hiroyasu Tanaka broke up the no-hit bid on a clean single up the middle, ending Kikuchi's night.

There was more drama in the inning, as Esmerling Vasquez struggled with command and gave up several hits to make it 6-3. Tanabe subbed in Shota Takekuma for one batter, but he also gave up a hit with inherited runners to bring the Swallows withing two. Masuda becme the fourth Lions pitcher to take the 8th and he came through with a 6-4 ground out. Takahashi cruised through the 9th for his 18th save of the year.

Game 3 saw a respectable outing by Chun-Lin Kuo, who had five shutout innings to start with minimal base running. Kuriyama opened the scoring on an RBI single after Akiyama started the game with a leadoff double. Okawari-kun hit his 19th home run of the year to double the lead at 2-0 through three innings.

In the sixth, the top of the Swallows' order got their hits off Kuo and they tied the game off a gapper from cleanup hitter Kazuhiro Hatakeyama. Takekuma came in for relief and struck out the next two batters preserving the tie.

In the bottom of the sixth, things were even more bizarre. Asamura and Okawari-kun had back to back singles to begin the inning while Mejia struck out. Mori had a ground ball in what should have been a 3-6 fielder's choice, but Yakult SS Takahiro Imanami ended up forcing a throw to first thinking he could get a double play. He threw it away between the first baseman and pitcher while Asamura was awarded an extra base from third, giving the Lions the lead again. Mori would have beaten out any throw to first base had someone been there to catch the ball.

Vasquez worked a quiet seventh inning and Masuda had one dramatic moment in the 8th. Hatakeyama took one deep to left-center field, but Akiyama leaped up at the wall to snatch it, robbing the Swallows' power hitter a double. Had that hit been in Fukuoka or Yokohama, it would have most likely resulted in a tie game.

Takahashi had the game-tying run on first base from a leadoff infield single. However, a failed bunt attempt trick by Takahiro Araki where he swung instead resulted in a pop out. He also got a ground ball and nearly a double play to end the game, leaving one runner at first and two outs. Yuhei Nakamura was up and after a long at bat of at least 10 pitches, he was caught looking on full count and Takahashi earned his 19th save of the season.

This week had its share of close games, but the Lions did just enough to win against the Carp and Swallows. Now it is a week of makeup games from interleague play and Saitama finished 10-6-2 after 18 games against the Central League.

The Lions still rely on good defense to win games and the hitting does just enough to win. They will be facing an Orix team who is coming off a strong sweep of the Hanshin Tigers, where they exploded for double digit runs in back to back games. Most importantly, the Lions are healthy, being a big reason why they're still competitive.

It's easy to think they could have gone 5-1 this week with the close loss to the Carp, but a winning week always helps. Until next weekend, Ganbarre Raionzu!


Wes Mills also contributed to this report. Follow us on Twitter @GraveyardBall

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