Sunday, March 27, 2016

2016 Seibu Lions Weekly Digest: Sayonara on Opening Day, Series taken


The Saitama Seibu Lions had an Opening Day and early series for the ages. All three games were sold out for a packed Seibu Dome with plenty of action.

On Opening Day, it was the battle of Orix ace Chihiro Kaneko against Yusei Kikuchi. Both pitchers had a decent duel, but the Buffaloes struck first after a two-run RBI hit from new import Brian Bogusevic. An error on Hotaka Yamakawa led to the rally and runs in the fourth inning.

Kikuchi would last six innings with only one earned run. On the otherhand, Kaneko was on cruise control where only Shogo Akiyama put up a fight. The Lions leadoff hitter drew multiple walks and was able to get on base. Orix rookie Masataka Yoshida would contribute as the leadoff hitter getting two key hits to setup chances.

Orix tacked on another run in the seventh after Chun-Lin Kuo struggled with his control having two walks. Shota Takekuma was able to get out of the inning, but the Lions trailed by three and only had one base hit leading up to that point.

Despite Kaneko's dominance, his control began to fade as his pitch count was past the 100 pitch mark in the bottom of the 7th. He would walk pinch hitters Takayuki Uemoto and Tomoya Mori which gave a chance for Akiyama. The reigning hits leader got his first base hit after the ball struck first base and swooped past Eiichi Koyano into right field as Uemoto scored for the first run.

Takumi Kuriyama would get a sacrifice fly and Ernesto Mejia tied the game on a two-out single. Suddenly there was life and C.C. Lee made his NPB debut with a scoreless 8th.

Tomomi Takahashi would take the 9th and had trouble drawing outs, having runners on the corners. He drew two infield fly balls, but an awkward bounce where Brent Morel hit a comebacker off Takahashi' leg would go away from any player and a runner scored from third.

Takahashi would leave the game with an injury and his conditions are unknown. Tatsushi Masuda struck out one batter to reduce the damage and it would be crucial. Akiyama drew a walk with one out off Erik Cordier and advanced to 2nd on a bad throw pickoff attempt.

Captain Kuriyama would hit a triple into the right-center field gap and tied the game. After Shotaro Tashiro came in as a pinch runner, Ernesto Mejia delivered the finishing blow with a gapper of his own and the Lions would win in Sayonara fashion.

It was a tremendous come from behind win where the Lions had no business winning. The hits wouldn't come until late and they only drew walks off Kaneko.

Seibu Lions 5 Orix Buffaloes 4

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In Game 2, Ken Togame had a poor start, allowing five runs which were all earned. He struck our four batters, but allowed base hit after base hit with each run coming in the first inning alone. The third inning featured a houdini, where he escaped a jam with two runners on and no outs.

Despite the 5-0 deficit to begin, the Lions were still getting on base as Orix started a rookie in Taisuke Kondo. They were able to score one run off of him in the third, but nothing more even though there were early chances.

In the fourth, Orix went with another rookie in relief in Ken Akama and his lack of control opened the door. With several walks and even errors on the infield, the Lions would tie the game after an error on Masahiro Nishino where he couldn't hold onto the ball at second base for what should have been a routine out.

The Lions followed up with a two out rally in the fifth as Takeya "Okawari-kun" would deliver the go-ahead single. Hideto Asamura would also add insurance with an RBI single of his own.  Kuriyama added a two-run single in the 6th inning and the team would never look back.

Kazuhisa Makita was inserted in the fourth inning as a long reliever and he finished the game for the final six innings. He had four strikeouts, two HBP and a walk, but Norio Tanabe kept confidence in him and Makita was helped with great infield defense.

With the Lions scoring nine unanswered runs, Makita would earn his first win of the season as a "bullpen ace". This is a move that both Christian and Wes have advocated for, as a submarine pitcher is a completely different change of pace in the middle of the game compared to seeing an overarm pitcher to start. We hope this trend can continue.

The Lions also benefited from Orix not playing their best pitcher for Game 2. It could have just been a "baptism of fire" to get all nerves out of the way early in the season and it didn't have the vibe of a "win now" decision. Orix's pitchers lacked control and the Lions were able to take advantage of it the entire game, having a runner on base in all eight innings they were at the plate.

Seibu Lions 9 Orix Buffaloes 5

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In Game 3, it was the battle of foreign pitchers Andy Van Hekken and Brandon Dickson with the former making his NPB debut. It was a rough start for Van Hekken, as he allowed three runs in the first two innings giving up a flurry of hits.

However, the Lions would answer back with three runs of their own in the third inning. Asamura and Okawari-kun would add some RBIs and even Ginjiro Sumitani would reach on an infield single to contribute.

Sumitani would be too aggressive on a throw trying to pickoff a runner with the bases loaded and Orix took the lead for good. Kuo would struggle again and walk runners for Shota Takekuma. Bogusevic added insurance for the Buffaloes to make it 5-3.

The Lions were on base for every inning in this game, but the situational hitting just wasn't there minus the one inning. Yamakawa had a discouraging start of going 0-9 in the series and had a double play when the bases were loaded.

In the ninth inning, there was a chance for the team as the bases were loaded for Shuta Tonosaki as Cordier was pitching. The young shortstop unfortunately struck out on a 1-2 pitch upstairs and Orix prevented a sweep.

Orix Buffaloes 5 Seibu Lions 3

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The Lions will now head on the road to Fukuoka to face the Softbank Hawks as well as Sendai for see the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Takayuki Kishi will start in Fukuoka along with Ryoma Nogami.  With a 2-1 opening record, the Lions are tied with the Chiba Lotte Marines for first place in the Pacific League.

It was an encouraging series where the Lions were not dead and trailed every game. The offense is still in feast or famine mode depending on the pitcher, but the plate discipline looked a lot smarter through three games. Middle relief is suspect, but we were happy that the Lions decided to go with Makita as a long reliever.

The other encouraging thing was Norio Tanabe not bunting often as well as stealing fewer bases. We won't know as much about them through three games, but one thing is for sure: They're competitive to the last out.

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Wes Mills also contributed to this story

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