Thursday, September 26, 2019

Lions repeat as Pacific League pennant winners in stunning fashion

On Tuesday night, the Saitama Seibu Lions won their second straight Pacific League pennant, repeating as winners for the first time in 21 years (1997-1998). Rather than a usual weekly digest, in short, the Lions took five out of seven games in a stretch where 7 consecutive matches were played.

On the final day of that span, the magic number was two as the Lions blew out the Chiba Lotte Marines 12-4 and the Rakuten Eagles came back and defeated the Softbank Hawks 4-2 to clinch A-class for themselves, creating a celebration in Chiba. Ernesto Mejia was also a big hero during the week with a sayonara HR in the regular season home finale and a clutch double in Sendai with the game tied.

Looking back on this season, the Lions didn't dominate and didn't even hold a first place standing until September. How did this happen? Here's a breakdown of one of the more improbable pennant finishes:

No Hideto Asamura? No problem.

The Lions came off a historic offense in 2018 with a franchise record of runs scored. While tehy didn't reach that number this season, the production at second base from Shuta Tonosaki didn't hurt the team. Asamura is a better hitter for average and home runs, but Tonosaki showed his defense was better while still being in the 20-20 club. Production wasn't matched by any means, but it wasn't a complete step backwards.


Bullpen hid early starter problems

In the first half of the year, the Lions starting pitching was a huge void with many pitchers either missing or ineffective. One stable element was the back end of the bullpen, where Katsunori Hirai was the workhorse setup man and Tatsushi Masuda put in a great rebound season as the closer.

Hirai's production dipped once his arm started to wear out and pitching coach Kazuyoshi Ono overused him, but it's clear this team doesn't reach this stage without his efforts in the first half doing everything. The biggest thing is how Masuda is the FIP master with a lack of walks while also striking out several opponents.

Ono ended up riding Hirai's arm until it broke, but this call was necessary to make it where they are now.


Overcoming starter woes, injuries

Shinsaburo Tawata was the opening day starter, but only appeared in a total of 12 ichi-gun games due to poor performance and condition. Despite being the wins leader last season, his lack of strikeouts in 2018 continued into 2019 where he gave up loud contact. Daiki Enokida was supposed to help the rotation, but he was also injured and ineffective which led to a shortened year.

Tetsuya Utsumi was supposed to be a rotation starter after being compensation for the loss of Ginjiro Sumitani. After several setbacks and injuries, he failed to play an ichi-gun game for the entire season and just sold bento boxes (as he was marketed in the concession area). Even when he returned to ni-gun, he wasn't productive, making this selection a flop on all fronts. 


Nakamura's resurgence picked up for Yamakawa

Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura had an outstanding year which led to him being the team's cleanup hitter in the second half, a position he used to hold. He led the league in RBIs, but several of them were clutch and meaningful, whether it was a bases loaded gapper or a grand slam. He padded his career grand slam total to 20, which is a league record when he passed Sadaharu Oh's in 2015. 

While already hitting 30 HRs, his average was above .280 for most of the year and even reached a peak at .296.  This was very unlike him or his identity, but he was a smart hitter while also being solid defensively at 3B.

Yamakawa was the cleanup hitter all of last year, but he was only big in the first half of 2019. While dropping his average to .245 at one point, the Lions made the right call to switch cleanup hitters as Yamakawa took a lesser role batting as low as 7th in the lineup. He still hit home runs, but wasn't as effective as his MVP season of 2018.


Zach Neal's redemption story

Zach Neal looked like he would take the path of any foreign import pitcher who struggles after four outings. He was sent to ni-gun in May and spent 40+ days working with the coaches on how to pitch in Japan, which changed his approach and location to fit NPB.

His hard work paid off when the Lions continued to win all of his starts beginning with June 20. The Lions went 13-0 and Neal was the winning pitcher in 11 of those starts. Neal's biggest strength is control, where he doesn't walk batters and isn't scared to challenge hitters. He was never a strikeout pitcher, but continued to be crafty at drawing the ground ball to let Tonosaki and Sosuke Genda do the work.

It's safe to say, Neal is the best foreign pitcher since Alex Graman. In terms of American starting pitchers, only Marion O'Neil can say he had at least 10 wins, which goes back to 1953 under the Nishitetsu Lions era and early days of professional baseball in Japan.


Bend, but don't break

Source: Tehsuigi on NPB's Reddit.
The Lions were swept in a three-game series only once in 2019. It was during the opening series against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks where they started the year 0-3. Otherwise, the Lions avoided any slump in the loss column to bury them and had at least a .500 record in each month. It's not always about being hot, but never being ice cold that can lead to staying alive.

There were six instances where the Lions lost the first two games of a three-game series, but won the last match to salvage a victory. The Lions were never dead as a result and always being in the hunt before making a run in August. It wasn't until September when the Lions had their first taste of being in first place.


Core position players performed, living up to hype

Shogo Akiyama, Sosuke Genda, Tonosaki, Yuji Kaneko, Tomoya Mori and Yamakawa all played to their identities without looking back. Each player had their own role whether it was to steal bases, play defense, get on base or hit home runs.

Sure, someone could get cold somewhere, but the offense was still a balanced attack where they led the Pacific League in average, on base percentage, stolen bases while also being second in home runs. The Hatsuhiko Tsuji era has continued to evolve and adjust on offense while not needing to bunt much. It didn't hurt to have five players with at least 20 HRs as the Lions became the first to have all Japanese players with this distinction.


Foreign contributions were minimal outside of Neal

Chun-Lin Kuo was good for one spot start and flopped on another. Kyle Martin had a great stretch as a reliever during interleague play, but struggled against the Rakuten Eagles leading to his deactivation in the last two months. Deunte Heath had a nightmare start to the year and never found his rhythm in his first full season with the Lions.

Ernesto Mejia already established himself as a rare bench player with Yamakawa preventing him from getting regular playing time. While he did make some big hits, his production only saw time as a starter against left-handed pitching as he was a pinch hitter in majority of his games. The future is uncertain for all imports if they return to the Lions or not in 2020, including Neal.


Pitching and the team peaked at the right time

Slow and steady wins the race? While making sure they hovered .500 for most of the year, the Lions went on a tear in August while the starting pitching proved to be dominant in September. Not only from Neal, but Wataru Matsumoto, Ken Togame, Tatsuya Imai, Daiki Enokida and Kona Takahash had their share of decent starts.

It was in September where a role reversal took place as the hitting was cold, starting pitching did well while Masuda and Hirai were hard to watch at times. The team still found ways to come through whether it was an opposing error or a bad pitch.


Bullpen played matchups in the second half

Ono ended up playing the roulette wheel with his staff once Kyle Martin became ineffective and Hirai was wearing down. Ryuya Ogawa, Shogo Noda and Kaima Taira started to come in for the 7th inning, but it was Ogawa and Taira who dominated the appearances when leading. Taira looks to be a solid bullpen contributor for years as the Lions have lacked a hard thrower. Ogawa is decent at getting a ground ball, but isn't always reliable. Even Tsubasa Kokuba started to play a little more in the second half.

On the flip side, it was disappointing Hiromasa Saito and Hayato Takagi couldn't crack much at the ichi-gun level with the former being used as a short starter and saw only a few games this year.


Defense, defense and defense

Tsuji has always focused on defense since being the Lions manager and this year was no different. Genda continued to make plays, but the middle of the infield got even better when Tonosaki's range was added at second base. This team doesn't have flashy web gems all the time, but their key has been to limit mistakes. Contrast that with what the Orix Buffaloes, Chiba Lotte Marines and even Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters were this year defensively.

Fumikazu Kimura was also serviceable defensively in thee field. At the end of the day, this covered majority of the pitching problems if the Lions could get to the ball and take away base hits or reduce the errors compared to the rest. This was the biggest reason the Lions took the pennant for the second straight year and shocked the NPB world after losing Yusei Kikuchi and Hideto Asamura from last season. They were able to Catch the Glory in a better late than never fashion.


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Monday, September 16, 2019

2019 Seibu Lions Weekly Digest: Neal, Sayonaras lead to first place


The Saitama Seibu Lions took a 4-2 homestand against the Softbank Hawks and Chiba Lotte Marines. With these wins, they made it to first place in the Pacific League for the first time all-season with the Magic number currently sitting at nine (through games on September 15). The Lions also clinched A-class for the third consecutive year.

 Here is how it all went down:


Zach Neal pitched seven innings in the first game against the Hawks and only allowed a solo HR to Alredo Despaigne. A bases-clearing double in the 4th inning by Tomoya Mori is all the offense the Lions needed. Tatsushi Masuda also picked up his 100th career save to end the game. As a result, the Lions were in first place by half a game.

Lions 4, Hawks 1


Ken Togame and Kodai Senga were in a pitcher's duel with both players not allowing a run through seven innings. It wasn't until the 8th inning when Yurisbel Gracial hit a HR off Katsunori Hirai in the 8th while Senga only gave up one run. Both sides traded a run in the 9th with Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura hitting a solo HR for his 29th of the season in a losing effort.

Hawks 3, Lions 2


Wataru Matsumoto had seven scoreless innings for the Lions in the first matchup against Chiba. Timely hits from Tomoya Mori, Okawari-kun and Shuta Tonosaki got to Mike Bolsinger early on. Shogo Akiyama hit a two-run HR to ice the game, making him the 5th player to hit 20 HRs for hte Lions this year, joining Okawari-kun, Hotaka Yamakawa, Tonosaki and Mori. This quintet is the only group of all-Japanese players to reach this benchmark.

Lions 6, Marines 1


Tatsuya Imai put in a strong performance with six innings and one run allowed, but this game wasn't over so quickly. Home runs from Tomoya Mori and Hotaka Yamakawa amounted to only three runs. Masuda blew the save in the 9th with a flurry of two out hits from Brandon Laird and pinch hitter Hiromi Oka.

Tsubasa Kokuba had a scoreless 10th inning, which was important for the bottom of the frame. With Okawari-kun on first, Ernesto Mejia hit a bloop to shallow centerfield and Hiromi Oka misplayed it, bouncing into no-man's land. This led to Okawari-kun scoring from first on a sayonara win while Kokuba earned his first victory.

Lions 4, Marines 3 (10 innings) 


Daiki Enokida allowed only one run through six innings, but ran into trouble in the 7th, where a bases-clearing gapper from Daichi Suzuki gave the Marines a 4-1 lead. The Lions chipped away at this with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 7th.

A three-run rally in the 8th capped off by timely hits from Sosuke Genda and Tomoya Mori gave the Lions their first lead of the day at 5-4. Hirai was brought in for the 9th and he blew it on a timely hit from Takashi Ogino.

The Lions blew a sayonara opportunity with runners on base in the bottom of the 9th forcing extra innings again. Yasuo Sano and Kaima Taira had scoreless 10th and 11th innings, setting up what looked to be a casual bottom of the 11th. Tomohisa Ohtani appeared to have finished the inning with a routine fly ball from Fumikazu Kimura with two outs. Defensive replacement Shohei Kato miscommunicated with Ogino in the outfield as both players collided and the ball fell to the ground. Kimura was able to run a lap around the bases for the second straight sayonara win in extra innings.

As a result, the Lions were in first place and clinched A-class and second place at minimum due to other games around the Pacific League.

Lions 6. Marines 5 (11 innings)

Game note:

-Tomoya Mori became the third Lions player to have a least 100 RBIs, joining Okawari-kun and Yamakawa.


Keisuke Honda couldn't hold a 2-0 lead as everything unraveled for the Lions in the top of the 6th. A barrage of hits and walks led to a six-run frame where Shogo Noda couldn't limit the damage and the Marines salvaged one out of the four games.

Marines 9, Lions 3


This was a fine week for the pitchers, but not so much the hitting. The final regular season homestand is here and if the Lions were to win a pennant, they have to clinch while on the road. 


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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Mori wins Pacific League MVP for August

Tomoya Mori was named the Pacific League hitting MVP for August of 2019 on Wednesday afternoon. This is the first time he has won a player of the month award. 

“I wanted to [win this award at least once] in my professional baseball career. I'm glad that it will be in August," Mori said. 

In August, Mori led the Pacific League in hits (40), RBIs (30), HRs (10) and Slugging average (.736). He was also third in on-base percentage with (.447), making an OPS of 1.183.  

Recently, the Lions have moved Mori up to being third in the lineup while bumping Shuta Tonosaki down to as low as 6th in the batting order, giving the former a chance to plate more runs when Shogo Akiyama is on base. 

Mori didn't have the highest batting average (.377), as that belonged to Masataka Yoshida of Orix (.407). He even made a statement about how he thought Yoshida was deserving of this award. 

This is the third time a Lions player has won a monthly award in 2019. Hotaka Yamakawa and Akiyama were the winners for March/April and May, respectively. 

All monthly MVP award winners for August were first time recipients. 

Other winners: 

David Buchanan (Swallows): (3-0), 33 IP, 22 K, 1.64 ERA

Ryoma Nishikawa (Carp): .365/.421/.513, 42 H, 4 HR, 12 RBI

Alan Busenitz (Eagles): (1-0), 11 Hlds, 13 IP, 9 K, 0.00 ERA.  


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Sunday, September 8, 2019

2019 Seibu Lions Weekly Digest: Nakamura's grand slams power through road trip


The Saitama Seibu Lions had another successful week going 5-1 against the Orix Buffaloes and Rakuten Eagles on the road. They retained second place while trailing the Softbank Hawks by one game for the Pacific League Pennant.

Here is what happened:

Orix Buffaloes (from Kobe)

Zach Neal won his eighth consecutive decision and the Lions continued their streak of 10 wins in games that he started since June 20. By going 6.1 scoreless innings, Neal continued his strong form. Takeya "Okawari-kun" hit a two-run HR in the first and three runs came in the 9th as insurance for what was a comfortable Lions win.

Lions 5, Buffaloes 1


Shuta Tonosaki's two HRs was enough in the Lions second game against Orix. Daiki Enokida went six innings with only two runs allowed while Kaima Taira, Shogo Noda and Yasuo Sano took the late innings.  Okawari-kun padded his league-record of career grand slams by hitting one in the 8th inning for his 19th.

Lions 10, Buffaloes 2


Wataru Matsumoto went six innings with only two runs allowed. He also recorded nine strikeouts. Offensively, Tonosaki hit another HR, but a bases-clearing double by Okawari-kun sealed the deal in this one.

Lions 7. Buffaloes 3


Rakuten Eagles (Sendai) 

Tatsuya Imai struggled in Game 1 and allowed four runs, including a two run HR to Jabari Blash. Five runs in the third inning was all the offense the Lions would receive with a grand slam by Okawari-kun, his 20th of his career.

When Imai left, it was a one-run game in the 6th inning as the bullpen shut the door with Tsubasa Kokuba, Ryuya Ogawa, Kaima Taira, Shogo Noda, Katsunori Hirai and Tatsushi Masuda combining for four shutout frames. 

Lions 5, Eagles 4


Kona Takahashi struggled in Game 2 after the Lions had a 2-0 lead. Hiroaki Shimauchi's timely hits gave the Eagles the lead for good with the Lions pitcher leaving the game after six innings. Takahashi was also deactivated with an elbow injury.

The Lions had a bases-loaded chance in the top of the 9th, but only Sosuke Genda could get a timely hit as they came up short in the loss.

Eagles 5, Lions 3


Keisuke Honda had a decent 5.2 innings, but a back-breaking two-run HR by Blash forced a no-decision for the Lions pitcher. Okawari-kun had a timely gapper in the first inning for two runs.

With squandered chances on both sides, the Lions defense had to save their pitchers with Genda making plays on the infield. Hotaka Yamakawa's gapper in the 8th inning with two outs had the game-deciding run reach home plate and Masuda escaped the 9th with a liner as two runners were on base.

Lions 3, Eagles 2


This was another good week taking care of business in Kansai while also pulling out some tough wins in Sendai. It was uncharacteristic to not score against the Eagles, but both sides are playing meaningful baseball and it's huge the Lions came out on top in one-run affairs.

The showdown against the Hawks is now set, where only a sweep or two wins and a tie would put the Lions in first place. Their work is cut out for them. 


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