|Akiyama's 31 game hit streak ended on Tuesday|
The first game against Rakuten saw a good pitcher's duel as it lived up to the hype between Kazuhisa Makita and Takahiro Norimoto. Makita went seven innings and let the defense do the work, with several double plays and even a pickoff happening.
Runs did not come until the sixth inning, where a key hit by Tomoya Mori with two runners on broke the scoreless draw. Naoto Watanabe would be up with the bases loaded and add he another run on an RBI groundout as there was no play at home plate.
Rakuten got a run back in the seventh, but Makita forced a double play to limit the damage as the defense conceded the run. The drama came in the ninth, where Tomomi Takahashi allowed a leadoff hitter and Zealous Wheeler came in with a pinch hit double to tie it at 2-2. It was Takahashi's second blown save of the season, but it kept a chance for Shogo Akiyama to extend his hitting streak, where he was 0-4 up to that point.
After a scoreless bottom of the ninth and Esmerling Vasquez took the 10th, the stage was set. Vasquez forced a double play of his own to give the Lions a chance. Akiyama ended up walking on an outside pitch and wouldn't swing away at something that was off target. This ended his streak at 31 games with a hit, but he got on base as he promised, saying he wasn't concerned about having a possible record. He was two games short of the All-time NPB record at 33 and one short of the Pacific League record at 32.
After Hideto Asamura was on base, Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura was up with two outs. On a two strike pitch, Koji Aoyama hung a pitch on the outside corner and Okawari-kun pulled it to the Lions' Oendan for the second Sayonara win of the year. The current NPB home run king hit his 26th home run of the year and in hindsight, it might been smarter to walk him for Mori.
It didn't look like the Lions would do well on Rakuten's bullpen after Norimoto had a strong outing of eight strikeouts. Relief pitchers Rhiner Cruz and Yuki Matsui were also automatic with six straight batters retired in the 8th and 9th innings before Aoyama came out for the 10th.
Game 2 saw a great start from Ryoma Nogami, as he pitched eight scoreless innings with only two hits. The Lions would get two runs from a 2-RBI double from Mori in the first inning. Okawari-kun would add two more in the fourth with a 2-RBI single down the LF line, from a two out rally.
The Lions would strand the bases loaded in the bottom of the 8th and it would come back to bite them. Norio Tanabe elected to keep Nogami in for the ninth with a 4-0 lead and 100 pitches. He would allow two straight singles before Wheeler would hit a three-run home run to make it a one run game.
Tomoni Takahashi came in and allowed a single from Willy Mo Pena to put the tying run on base. After he was able to retire two batters, Akihisa Makida came in and found the gap, scoring the pinch runner from first and Takahashi blew his second save in as many nights.
The Lions had their chance to walkoff with runners in the 9th and 10th innings, but the bunting wouldn't get anything done as execution was off. They even bunted a runner over to second with Ginjiro Sumitani batting next with two outs, where it wouldn't help in any form.
Vasquez would have the bases loaded in the 11th inning and allowed the game-losing base hit from Tatsuro Iwasaki, who only made his eighth at-bat of the season. It was a dumpster fire of a game for Lions fans after what looked promising for eight innings.
There is no excuse for Tanabe to leave Nogami in as long as they did and he should have put in a specialist when Wheeler was batting. Takahashi has been underused at times due to less save situations occurring, but even he gave up a big hit where it is partially his fault.
It's never good to limp into the All-Star break by going 1-5 in your last six games, but the Lions have just pulled that. The good news is, the Chiba Lotte Marines had an eight game losing streak of their own during this span and broke it with a win. Seibu is still six games ahead of the fourth place Marines as they couldn't score runs until their last game vs. Orix.
Being backed in to this isn't a good feeling, but the Lions are exactly what their record is. They appear to be an above average team, but nothing great and nowhere near contender status. Thankfully, they're not in the Bottom 3 of the Pacific League and can still turn things around, but Takahashi has hit a rough funk which he will hopefully snap out of it.
We will have more Lions and other NPB thoughts coming this week now that we're at the All Star Break.
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