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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Era Wrap: Legendary Dragons of the Heisei Era (1989 - 2019)

As many of you are aware, it is the end of an era. For Japan watchers, it is the end of the reign of the Heisei Emperor. The Emperor, Akihito, will be abdicating at the end of April to make way for his son, Naruhito who will become the Reiwa Emperor, ushering in a new era and, perhaps the most impacting of all, a different way for people to learn how to write the date. Japan still uses the Emperor year for a lot of official documents and historically, it breaks things up to allow for all kind of retrospectives.

People wax lyrical about the "good times" of the Showa era [1925-1988] (not that part of it, the other part) while there's been much discussion of the carefree attitude of those born in the Heisei era [1989-2019]. Whatever the case may be, it's a lazy excuse to run off articles that are book-ended by each era, so here I am capitalizing on the same. Here, I'm hoping to give you my thoughts on the most memorable and successful Dragons of the Heisei era. This has been done by local broadcasters, but I disagreed with far too much of it, so here are my thoughts.

To make my analysis a bit easier, I'll only be talking about the players and the impact they made at the Dragons during the Heisei era meaning that I'll be cutting any stats from other leagues, teams or years. The years they were with the team will remain the same. The stats and awards indicated with the players are those achieved only during the Heisei era.

Motonobu Tanishige [2002-2015]
Name: 谷繁元信
Birthdate: 21st December 1970
Birthplace: Shobara, Hiroshima Prefecture
Alma Mater(s): Gonogawa High School, Taiyo Whales/Yokohama Baystars
Draft Pick: #1 - 1988 (Taiyo Whales)
Games Played: 1604
Hits: 1106
Homeruns: 126
Runners caught stealing: 601 (.368)
* Golden Glove x 5 ( 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012)
* Most Valuable battery x 3 (2004 & 2006 with Kenshin Kawakami, 2011 with Kazuki Yoshimi)
* Japan Series MVP x 1 (2004)
* All-Star x 6 (2002、2005、2007、2012-2014)

The easy thing about deciding on a catcher for the era is that there are really only two candidates, now battery coach, Takeshi Nakamura and former manager, Motonobu Tanishige. As much as Nakamura contributed to some of the great teams of the early 90s including helping Shinji Imanaka and Masahiro Yamamoto to Sawamura Awards (as well as Shigeki Noguchi's MVP), I've decided to go with Tanishige.

To keep things simple, Tanishige brought together a pitching staff and helped his team to a number of pennants as well as the 2007 Japan Series. His relationship with staff ace, Kenshin Kawakami is perhaps one of the biggest success stories but the fact of the matter is that he was a standard behind the dish for over a decade during the Dragons most successful era in their history.

Hiromitsu Ochiai [1987-1993]
First Base
Name: 落合博満
Birthdate: 9th December 1953
Birthplace: Oga, Akita Prefecture
Alma Mater(s): Akita Commercial High School, Toyo University (drop-out), Toshiba Fuchu, Lotte Orions, Yomiuri Giants, Nippon Ham Fighters
Draft Pick: 3rd - 1978 (Lotte Orions)
Games Played: 608
Hits: 638
Homeruns: 150
OPS 1.000
* Homerun King x 2 (1990-1991)
* Best Nine x 3 (1989-1991)
* RBI Leader (1989-1990)
* All-Star x 4 (1989-1991, 1993)

First-base is always hard to get your head around when coming up with a best player for the position as it always comes down to guys with a lot of dingers who are fun to watch. Given the 30 year span we have to look at there's been more than a fair share of hard-hitting first basemen to run the rule over; Hiromitsu Ochiai at the beginning of the era, Tai-Feng Chen, Takeshi Yamasaki, Tyrone Woods, Tony Blanco and even Dayan Viciedo deserve to be in the conversation.

Despite the success that Tyrone Woods brought with him and the recency of it, after much analysis and thought, I've selected none other than Hiromitsu Ochiai as the best first baseman of the Heisei era. While he didn't hit dingers with quite as much proficiency as Woods, his OPS is just ridiculous and his oWAR peak and average is higher than Woods (Woods' peak was 5.7 in 2006, Ochiai's 6.6 in 1989). This is perhaps cheating a little bit as Ochiai started at third and shifted to first, but I will count this anyway as it's just as much about overall contribution as it is contribution at one position.

Ochiai came to the Dragons in 4:1 trade where Katsuhiko Ushijima, Seiji Kamikawa, Sadaharu Hiranuma and Shigeru Kuwata all went to the Orions. A big move by then manager, Senichi Hoshino which proved to be a master stroke in capturing the 1988 Central League pennant where Ochiai had a .998 OPS season with 32 home runs. Ochiai would better that the following year as he slammed 40 homers at 1.036 OPS in 1989 where the team unfortunately slumped to third behind the "Red Helmet" Carp and the Giants. Ochiai's best season with the bat for the Dragons would come in 1991 at age 37 where he lead the league in homeruns, walks, slugging, OBP and OPS slashing a line of .340/.473/.682. The Dragons would finish just 3 games behind the Hiroshima Carp that year and that would be the last elite season we'd see from Ochiai.

Ochiai's 1.155 OPS in 1991 is the highest any Dragon has ever achieved in a single season. That alone puts him on a special mantle. Truly one of the best offensive producers of the era, Ochiai goes down as a legend of the Japanese game on his playing career alone...

Kazuyoshi Tatsunami [1988-2009]
Second Base
Name: 立浪和義
Birthdate: 19th August 1969
Birthplace: Suita, Osaka Prefecture
Alma Mater(s): PL Gakuen
Draft Pick: 1st - 1987 (Chunichi Dragons)
Games Played: 2476
Hits: 2405
Homeruns: 167
Doubles: 472
OPS 0.768
* Best Nine x 2  (1996, 2004)
* Golden Glove x 4 (1995-1997, 2003)
* NPB All-Star x 10 (1991, 1994 - 1998, 2000, 2002-2004)

Second base has had two stalwarts throughout the Heisei era. Masahiro Araki, who slapped hits and stole bases and the NPB doubles king, Kazuyoshi Tatsunami. Araki had a fantastic career and his defensive contributions underscored by his relationship with Hirokazu Ibata made him a very valuable player, however, Tatsunami provided ample talent with the glove to go along with his longevity and the fact you have to have "Mr Dragons II" somewhere in the team.

Tatsunami started his career with the Dragons as a high school rookie out of the famed PL Gakuen baseball program. Senichi Hoshino stood by his man in his rookie year where he played out the season at short-stop in spite of conventional wisdom and the experience Masaru Uno in his way. Tatsunami would capture ROTY honors despite only managing a .223/.317/.310 slash line.

Life would be a bit harder to Tatsunami in 1989 as he only played in 30 games, but from 1990, Tatsunami would capture a spot in the first team and not let go becoming one the Dragons key men for almost two decades. Tatsunami's greenest patch with the bat would come between 1990 and 1998 where he average 3.77 oWAR each season with a peak of 4.5 in 1996 where he capture Golden Glove, Best 9 and All-Star honours after batting .323/.404/.466 including 10 homeruns and a  career high 39 doubles. Tatsunami was largely deployed as a lead-off hitter during this span while also spending time in the #3 slot.

A drop-off in defensive ability made it hard for Tatsunami to appear at second base, but following the departure of Leo Gomez, he found time at third-base where he claimed a Golden Glove in 2003 and a Best 9 selection in 2004. With the rise of Masahiko Morino in 2006 and Nori Nakamura in the seasons following, Tatsunami saw his career close out as an effective pinch-hitter helping his team to a Japan series win in 2007.

Tatsunami essentially flew the flag for the Dragons in the Heisei era and rightfully belongs in this list.

Hirokazu Ibata [1998-2013]
Name: 井端弘和
Birthdate: 12th May 1975
Birthplace: Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture
Alma Mater(s): Horikoshi High School, Asia University, Yomiuri Giants
Draft Pick: 5th - 1997 (Chunichi Dragons)
Games Played: 1711
Hits: 1807
Homeruns: 52
Doubles: 258
OPS 0.692
* Best 9 x 5 (2002, 2004-2007)
* Golden Glove x 7 (2004-2009, 2012)
* All-Star x 8 (2001, 2002, 2005, 2007-2011)

Short-stop is yet another position that's fairly straight forward when looking at this era of players. Tatsunami played there early in his career, while Kosuke Fukudome, Masahiro Araki, Yusuke Torigoe, Hitoshi Taneda all had bouts at some point of their careers at that tricky defensive position but all for about 2 seasons each on average. In the end, there's only one man that has made the position his own during this era and that is Hirokazu Ibata.

Ibata started his time with the top team in his rookie year where he only saw 60 plate appearances. He was sent to the farm to work on his game before reappearing in 2000 as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement where he appeared in 90 games of the course of the season. In 2001 Ibata became a regular at short-stop playing all games while regularly appearing at second in the line-up behind Kosuke Fukudome and later Masahiro Araki.

Ibata would form part of the formidable defensive pairing with Araki and as part of the one-two punch at the top of the order. Ibata's best offensive year would come in 2005 where he hit .323/.405/.413 helping lead the team to a respectable finish in second behind the Hanshin Tigers. Ibata would have another influential year in 2009 where he would bat .306 and help the Dragons reach another Japan Series through the playoffs. From 2010 Ibata would see more time at second base with Araki at short where he'd often bat 6th in the line-up but otherwise only appeared in 53 games at age 35. He would however take back his place at short and at 2nd in the line-up the following season 3 seasons and although a .284 average (2.9 oWAR) season in 2012 showed something was left in the tank, Ibata started to slump and was ultimately let go by the club to join the Yomiuri Giants at the end of 2014.

Ibata was a fantastic servant in a very important team role for many years, it is a shame that he left the team the way he did considering his years of service (and in hindsight, his replacements weren't that much better) but he will forever live on in Chunichi folklore.

Leonardo Gómez Vélez [1997-2002]
Third Base
Name: レオ・ゴメス
Birthdate: 2nd March 1966
Birthplace: Canóvanas, Puerto Rico
Alma Mater(s): Luis Hernaiz Verone High School, Baltimore Orioles, Chicago Cubs
Draft Pick: Free Agent (Baltimore Orioles)
Games Played: 660
Hits: 690
Homeruns: 153
OPS 0.914
* Best 9 x 2 (1997, 1999)
* All-Star x 1 (2000)

Third base has had it's share of decent players this era. Most recently Nobumasa Fukuda and Shuhei Takahashi have had their names stamped there but for the best of the era the likes of Leo Gomez, Hector Luna, Masahiko Morino and Kazuyoshi Tatsunami have to be considered. Given that Morino's peak was good but not amazing and he flipped around different positions (the same can be said of Tatsunami) I have gone with a suketto that time has forgotten in Leo Gomez.

Gomez came to the Dragons in the era where the Dragons actually had money to pull in names. Gomez had 7 seasons in the majors with Orioles and Cubs before he came over to Japan under the invitation of Senichi Hoshino.

Gomez hit the ground running in his rookie season in Japanese baseball, slugging 31 homers at a .915 OPS which would give him his peak oWAR of 5.5. In 1999, Gomez would slug the most homers by any foreign player with the Dragons to that point  with 36 combining with 109 RBIs (oWAR 4.6) earning him a place in the Best 9 once more. Of those 36 homeruns, Gomez knocked in 13 against the Giants earning him the adoration of fans.

At the end of 2000, Gomez left the club to spend more time with family, but due to poor form from new imports, Tim Unroe and Ozzie Timmons, he made a comeback mid-way through the 2001 season hitting 19 homers. He would finish his career with a knee injury that limited appearances and saw him play mostly at first base.

During his tenure, Gomez helped the Dragons to 3 x 2nd place finishes in the Central League and was a staple at 4th in the lineup.

This choice is less straight-forward than others with Morino putting forward a strong case between 2008 and 2010 but given that Gomez played more or less exclusively at third, he gets my nod.

Kosuke Fukudome [1999-2007]
Name: 福留孝介
Birthdate: 26th April 1977
Birthplace: Osaki, Kagoshima Prefecture
Alma Mater(s): PL Gakuen High School, Nihon Seimei BC, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Hanshin Tigers
Draft Pick: 1998 - #1 (Chunichi Dragons)
Games Played: 1074
Hits: 1175
Doubles: 264
Homeruns: 192
OPS: 0.928
* Central League MVP x 1  (2006)
* Batting Champion x 2 (2002, 2006)
* OBP Leader x 3 (2003, 2005, 2006)
* Best 9 x 3 (2002, 2003, 2006)
* Golden Glove x 4 (2002, 2003, 2005, 2006)
* NPB All-Star x 5 (1999, 2002-2004, 2006)

There's not quite anyone as studly as Kosuke Fukudome was in a Dragons uniform. Elite defense and elite hitting, Fukudome was the archetypal outfielder excelling in every role put before him. Kazuki Inoue and Ryosuke Hirata are about the only other two worthy of mentioning for roles in the Heisei best team, but Fukudome just about ticks every box even for a Dragons best 9 of all time. 

Fukudome was signed from Nihon Seimei baseball club at the 1998 draft after he turned down the Buffaloes in 1995 because he wanted to play for either the Dragons or the Giants (Fukudome was a big fan of Tatsunami growing up). 

Fukudome spent his first two years as a short-stop before making the successful conversion to the outfield in 2001. Fukudome was a steady contributor batting around .270 with 10 homeruns or so a season before breaking out in 2002 where he capture batting champion honours and his first best 9 and golden glove selections. A slash line of .343/.406/.537 including a league high 42 doubles and 19 homeruns showed that beginning of what the young man could do. He further improved on this in 2003 leading the league in OBP and triples while mashing 34 homers for a 1.005 OPS. 2004 would be an on/off year for Fukudome as he received a call-up for the Summer Olympics as well as breaking his wrist on return to the team.

2005 however would see a return to true form where he lead the league in OBP once more with 28 homers and a slash line of .328/.430/.490. It was to be 2006 however that would be Fukudome's magnum opus in Japanese baseball. In an MVP winning year, Fukudome helped his team to the Central League pennant while whacking an enormous .351/.438/.653 slash line launching 31 homers into the stands with 104 RBIs. Fukudome lead the league in average, OBP, slugging, OPS doubles and runs scored while also having a historical oWAR season, the most of any Dragon in history, at 8.6.

Fukudome would have one more season in a Dragons uniform in 2007 but injury played it's role in slowing him down as his team powered to a Japan Series victory more or less without him. Fukudome would leave as a free agent at the end of the season to sign with MLB's Chicago Cubs. 

Perhaps the fan in me is coming out, but Fukudome is one of the best players to throw on a Dragons uniform in my opinion. The things he achieved offensively are off the grid and we were very, very lucky to have him for some of those amazing years. 

Alonzo Powell (1992-1997)
Center field
Name: アロンゾ・パウエル
Birthdate: 12th December 1964
Birthplace: San Francisco, California
Alma Mater(s): Lincoln High School, Montreal Expos, Seattle Mariners, Hanshin Tigers, Newark Bears
Draft Pick: 1989 - Free Agent (San Francisco Giants)
Games Played: 632
Hits: 765
Doubles: 137
Homeruns: 107
OPS 0.888
* Batting Champion x 3 (1994-1996)
* Hits Leader x 1 (1996)
* Best 9 x 3 (1993-1996)
* All-Star x 2 (1994, 1996)

To be honest, I'm being a bit of a contrarian here by choosing Alonzo Powell. A lot of people and the Dragons media are going to pick Yohei Oshima. I think on the balance of defense and offense, Oshima has a very strong and compelling case, but given no one had ever won the batting title 3 years in a row before Powell and the fact his offensive production over 6 seasons eclipses what Oshima has achieved in close to 10, I'm going with Powell.

Powell was brought to the Dragons following time spend with Seattle Mariners AAA affiliate, the Calgary Cannons for $350,000. In his first season, Powell had issues with the amount of off-speed pitches thrown in the NPB, but still finished the season batting .308 with and .849 OPS. In 1993, Powell had injury issues but once again passed the amount of plate appearances required to be considered for post season awards hitting doing otherwise quite well in hitting .317 with an improved 0.952 OPS and knocking in 27 homeruns.

It would however be through 1994 to 1996 that Powell would shine as he captured 3 batting titles where he held a 3-year slashline of .339/.395/.538 with 53 homeruns and 212 RBIs and 12.8 oWAR.

Powell had a successful career in Japan mostly as a centre-fielder and my selection here is based on the candle burning brightest rather than longest.

Kazuhiro Wada [2008-2015]

Left Field
Name: 和田一浩
Birthdate: 19th June 1972
Birthplace: Gifu, Gifu Prefecture
Alma Mater(s): Gifu Commercial High School, Tohoku Fukushi University, Kobe Steel, Seibu Lions
Draft Pick: 1996 - #4 (Seibu Lions)
Games Played: 1010
Hits: 1018
Doubles: 184
Homeruns: 142
OPS 0.840
* Central League MVP x 1 (2010)
* Best 9 x 1 (2010)
* All Star x 3 (2008, 2010, 2012)

Behind Kazuhiro Wada there is really only Tai-Feng Chen as a reasonable contender in left-field for the Heisei era. Yoshinori Oshima was the last challenger and his career unfortunately ended with the close of the Showa era. Wada will be most fondly remembered for his baldness, but also for that powerful 2010 season where he was utterly unstoppable.

Originally drafted by the Lions as a catcher, Wada had a formidable career with the team mostly as an outfielder before making the switch to the Dragons at age 35 after the departure of Kosuke Fukudome to the Major Leagues. Like many on this list, his first season started off slowly where he pelted 19 homers in his first season batting .302. 2009 would see an uptick in production where Wada showed his wares batting .302/.382/.532 with 29 homeruns. He also shone in the field as he put up put-out numbers topping the Central League for the second year in a row.

His tour de force would however come in 2010 as a then 38 year-old Wada took the NPB by storm as a one man wrecking ball where he hit .339 with 1.061 OPS and 37 homeruns. His contribution with the bat would help propel the Dragons to another Japan series run where Wada would be MVP of the Climax Series while also receiving honours for his performance on the losing side of the Japan Series against the Chiba Lotte Marines.

In 2011, Wada would experience a downturn following a change in stance and a change to the balls in the NPB where he hit .231, the lowest of his career since he became a first team regular. In 2012, further change to his stance sacrificed his power for average as he hit an improve .285 but only cleared the fence 9 times appearing in all 144 games. In 2013 Wada's power would pick-up once more as he hit 18 homers for an average of .275 but was mired by a Central League high of 26 HDP.  From 2014, his career would wind down as he was out of the squad more and more often before retiring in 2015.

On that 2010 season alone we must marvel. At his age, adapting to a new league Wada filled the hole left by Fukudome expertly and created one of the best seasons by a Dragon in the Heisei era filled with plenty of contact and plenty of homeruns. Fukudome's 2006 beats this one for me just, but Wada's 2010 will be one to be remembered for the ages.

Shinji Imanaka [1989-2001]

Starting Pitcher
Name: 今中慎二
Birthdate: 6th March 1971
Birthplace: Kadoma, Osaka
Alma Mater(s): Osaka Toin High School
Draft Pick: 1988 - #1 (Chunichi Dragons)
Mound Appearances: 233
Win-Loss Record: 91-61
Innings Pitched: 1395.2
Strikeouts: 1129
* Eiji Sawamura Award x 1 (1993)
* Most Valuable Pitcher x 1 (1993)
* Best 9 x 1 (1993)
* Golden Glove x 1 (1993)
* All-Star x 4 (1991, 1993-1995)

Here I'm sure I'm going to get a lot contentious stares. There are more than a few starting pitchers that have made their mark with the Dragons during the Heisei era. Heck, 3 of them have won the Sawamura Award and another won the MVP. Shinji Imanaka, Kenshin Kawakami and Masahiro Yamamoto all took the most prestigious pitching award in Japanese baseball while Shigeki Noguchi took the MVP in 1994. Throw in Kazuki Yoshimi's early career and you've got a very handy rotation. However, there must only be one and while Kawakami or Yamamoto are probably the most obvious answers, I've chosen Imanaka. He was a better pitcher than Yamamoto and had a worse team behind him than Kawakami and a more hitter friendly park.

Imanaka was drafted out of the now famous Osaka Toin High School baseball program in 1988 with a fastball touching as high as 148 km/h and a slow curve that was deemed "unhittable" by some.

Imanaka had a rough introduction to pro-ball in the 1989 season when he had a 1-4 record with a 6.86 ERA in his rookie season. In the 1990 season however, Imanaka would get his first two digit win season following improvements on the movements to his off speed pitches and spin on his fastball. He was able to establish himself as part of the rotation at age 20 while also pitching 8 complete games including 4 complete game shutouts.

In 1991, Imanaka played in his first All-Star. He barely missed out on ERA leader honours in a battle with Shinji Sasaoka of the Hiroshima Carp at a different of 0.08.

Imanaka's time to shine would however come in 1993 where he was opening day pitcher. In a game against the Swallows in July, Imanaka claimed 16 strikeouts which was a tie for the Central League record at the time. In September, Imanaka went 15 innings in an ultimately fruitless endeavour against the Swallows once more and racked up 249 innings in total over the season including 247 strikeouts claiming Best 9, Golden Glove, Sawamura Award and All-Star honors. WAR statistics put Imanaka at 6.7 wins above replacement more than earning his bread.

Imanaka would be apart of the famous 10.8 team where the Dragons fought to the tooth and nail against the Giants for the 1994 pennant. Imanaka had petitioned strongly to pitch the game but was found wanting after conceding 4 runs in 5 innings. The Dragons would lose the game 5-3 to hand the Giants the pennant.

Imanaka would remain a constant in the starting rotation in 1995 and 1996 where he would post respectable 3.29 and 3.31 ERAs and positive a positive win-loss record. In 1997 however, injury would take it's toll after pitching constantly since he was a teenager and unfortunately, Imanaka's opportunity to show off his indomitable slow curve would fade. The memory however will always remain.

At Imanaka's peak he was just about the best in the Heisei era who reportedly had more than his share of MLB suitors. The legend of his unhittable slow curve just about cements him in my mind as the Dragons ace of this period. Kawakami was probably the most successful awards wise, but Imanaka was the better pitcher in this humble bloggers opinion.

Takuya Asao [2007-2018]

Relief Pitcher
Name: 浅尾拓也
Birthdate: 22nd August 1982
Birthplace: Chita, Aichi Prefecture
Alma Mater(s): Tokoname High School, Tohoku Fukushi University
Draft Pick: 2006 - #3 (Chunichi Dragons)
Mound Appearances: 416
Win-Loss Record: 38-21
Innings Pitched: 505.2
Strikeouts: 460
Holds: 200
* Central League MVP x 1 (2011)
* Golden Glove x 1 (2011)
* All-Star x 2 (2010, 2011)

Relievers are a dime a dozen but how many win an MVP award? Well, there's a select few and there are two that have played for the Dragons, Yuen-chih Kuo in 1989 and Takuya Asao in 2011. I would have otherwise selected Kuo but because a great majority of his achievements occurred in the Showa era and he also flipped between starting and relieving, I'm giving this to the darling of the Dragons, Takuya Asao.

Asao started off as a catcher in school but eventually was drafted as a pitcher out Tohoku Fukushi University in the 3rd round of the university/industrial league player draft in 2006. Asao had declared before the draft he wouldn't play for anyone but the Dragons.

Asao's first season was mostly as a starter, but it was in 2009 that he became fully established in the Dragons bullpen, claiming 33 holds in 67 mound appearances.
Asao would however reach elite reliever status in 2010 where he aided the teams pennant race win by pitching in 72 games and claiming a league high 47 holds at an ERA of 1.68 where he also earned his first All-Star call. Asao was deployed as a fireman often pitching more than one inning at a time but it was in 2011 that he showed nothing less than miraculous pitching fanning 100 batters over 87 1/3 innings giving up 0 homeruns and registering a 7-2 record with 45 hold and 10 saves. As a reliever, Asao claimed 3.8 WAR and was awarded for his efforts by being given the MVP for the 2011 season. A 0.41 ERA is unheard of for a reliever, but Asao somehow did it in the best style possible.

His work over the years however would eventually take it's toll as he experienced a downturn in velocity in 2012, resulting in only 29 appearances. Asao would never pitch more than 30 innings in a season following that after he appeared continually to be in rehab. At his peak, Asao had 156 km/h fastball as well as a sweeping slider, devastating fork and a very handy palm ball. A great armoury to draw from, but at the time of retirement, the main gun was only firing at 146 km/h on a good day.

Most likely overworked, Asao experienced a short but amazing career where he actively contributed to a fantastic pitching team. His 2011 will go down in history as one of the greatest seasons by a reliever for all time.

Hitoki Iwase [1999-2018]

Closing pitcher
Name: 岩瀬仁紀
Birthdate: 17th September 1975
Birthplace: Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture
Alma Mater(s): Aichi Prefectural Nishio East High School, Aichi University, NTT Tokai BC
Draft Pick: #2 - 1998 (Chunichi Dragons)
Mound Appearances: 1003
Innings Pitched: 950
Strikeouts: 813
Saves: 406
* Most Valuable Reliever (1999, 2000, 2003)
* Most Saves (2005, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2012)
* Come Back Award (2017)
* NPB All-Star (2000, 2001, 2003, 2005-2007, 2010-2013)
* Central League record for season saves (46, 2005)
* Combined perfect game with Daisuke Yamai (v Nippon Ham Fighters, 1 November, 2007)

Well, this is probably the most predictable of all the selections that have come before it.

I say closer, you say: IWASE!

Was there ever any doubt? Hitoki Iwase is just about the greatest closer of all time let alone the best of the Dragons in the Heisei Era. To be fair, there were some good closers in between with Akinori Otsuka, Eddy Gaillard, Dong-Yul Sun, Tsuyoshi Yoda and Yuen-chih Kuo. As much as all of those guys were good, Iwase was better.

Iwase never left Aichi prefecture on his way to being drafted by the Dragons in 1998. Iwase was flagged as a reliever from the start of his career with only one start registered in 2000. After solid seasons in the back of the bullpen in support of Otsuka and Gaillard, Iwase was made the full-time closer in 2004 by Hiromitsu Ochiai. The birth of the "God of Death" aided the Dragons to their first pennant win in 5 years.

Iwase would top the league in saves in 2005 setting a Japanese record in the process with 46 and an ERA of 1.88 while never surrendering a homerun. Known and feared for his slider, the southpaw built on his reputation in 2006 by going out and claiming a further 40 saves and aiding his team to the Central League pennant and claiming his 100th save in the process.

In 2007 Iwase would break the club saves record held by Kuo and become the 8th player in NPB history to 500 mound appearances. Iwase would also claim the spotlight in the decider of the Japan Series where despite his starter Daisuke Yamai being en-route to a perfect game, was put in to close out to what has become known as a combined perfect game in a 1-0 win over the Nippon Ham Fighters.

In 2013, Iwase would become the holder of the NPB title for most saves after surpassing Kazuhiro Sasaki's combined NPB and MLB title of 382.

Between 2004 and 2014 Iwase would put up seasons of 20 saves or more which holds as an NPB record.

In 2018, Iwase would record 1002 career mound appearances, the most for any pitcher in NPB history while also adding to his save record ending his career with an almost unsurmountable 407 saves.

There's no doubt that Iwase's legacy will be a lasting one and the Dragons will and still are having all sorts of fun looking for his long-term successor but no one will ever be that good or long lasting ever again. Dennis Sarfate of the Hawks has taken some of the luster off Iwase's sparkling career by encompassing his single season save record, but in terms of longevity, there's nothing that beats the best closer there ever was.

Let's build a roster

Well, now we have our team, we can build a line-up and  a 28 man roster.

1. CF Alonzo Powell
2. SS Hirokazu Ibata
3. RF Kosuke Fukudome
4. 1B Hiromitsu Ochiai
5. LF Kazuhiro Wada
6. 3B Leo Gomez
7. 2B Kazuhiro Tatsunami
8. C  Motonobu Tanshige
9. P  Shinji Imanaka

Bench: C Takeshi Nakamura, 2B Masahiro Araki, CF Yohei Oshima, 1B Tyrone Woods, 3B Masahiko Morino, 1B/LF Tai-feng Chen

Starting Rotation:
1. Shinji Imanaka
2. Masahiro Yamamoto
3. Kenshin Kawakami
4. Shigeki Noguchi
5. Kazuki Yoshimi
6. Wei-Yin Chen

1. Yuen-chih Kuo
2. Shinya Okamoto
3. Takuya Asao
4. Dong-Yul Sun
5. Eiji Ochiai
6. Akifumi Takahashi
7. Hitoki Iwase

This is how I'd imagine the best roster of the Heisei era would look like. I've been generous on the import spots for this team, there's generally only four but I couldn't leave out anyone from roster I've put forward here. I ended up with 7 foreign players in total with 3 from Taiwan, 3 from the USA and 1 from the Republic of Korea.

Overall, this has taken me quite a bit of time to put together but it's been fun doing it. I really enjoy doing these retrospectives and I'm hoping my selections cause a bit of conversation. There's quite a few borderline and perhaps bias calls among my selections but feel free to debate me. 

Series Wrap: Dragons vs Tigers @Nagoya Dome, 27 April - 29 April; Tigers pounce on bedazzled Dragons

The start of the 10-day spectacular would be a 3 game series against the Hanshin Tigers at home. The Tigers have been quite honestly awful this year but still have a solid pitching foundation. As has been the case the last few years, this would be a competitive series where ultimately, the Tigers would leave with a series win.

Zoilo Almonte was dropped ahead of the series with Nobumasa Fukuda favoured in left-field and a combination of Enny Romero, Raidel Martinez, Dayan Viciedo and Joely Rodriguez as the designated foreign players on the roster.

  • Game 22: Tigers 4-5 Dragons
  • Game 23: Tigers 4-2 Dragons
  • Game 24: Tigers 2-0 Dragons
Shotaro Kasahara was scheduled to start the Golden Week bonanza but a felt unwell. Yu Sato was brought in as an emergency replacement while Kasahara was lated diagnosed with arrhythmia. 

Given the circumstances, Sato performed to expectation giving up 3 earned run in the first inning but surviving through 3IP in total. A 3-run dinger to Viciedo in bottom of the 4th would put the Dragons 4-3 to the good following Oshima's timely RBI single. Toshiki Abe's RBI in the 5th would give just enough of a buffer for the Dragons to survive despite Koji Chikamoto's infield single putting the Tigers within one run. Another bullpen run-out saw Matayoshi pick up the burden of the other half of a start as he pitched 3 innings while Rodriguez, Tanimoto, Martinez and Suzuki closed out the game. Suzuki would claim his 8th save of the season maintaining his lead in the Central League standings. 

Batting coach, Takayuki Murakami was apparently behind getting the Dragons into gear to fight back after their 3-run setback early in the game firing them up after getting into Yuki Nishi's apparent lack of respect when he plunked Ryosuke Hirata in the opening of the 4th inning. 

Yuya Yanagi would continue his consistent form in game 23 of the season as he pitched 6 innings for 2 ER and 6SO in another quality start. The Dragons would pull equal in the top of the 5th after trading early blows with the Tigers. The lead was surrendered to the opposition in rather embarrassing fashion in the top of the 4th as a very poor execution on a return to second from Takuma Kato allowed Ryutaro Umeno to score. Toshiki Abe would be the saviour to bring thing back to 2-2 in the 5th  bit a wayward inning from Shinji Tajima in the 7th followed by some neat batting from the Tigers, too the game away. Hirata and Oshima would both have modasho days while Abe had a muti-hit game. 

Takuma Achira would get his first start in 2 years after some confusion about Takumi Yamamoto being called up and being sent down again. Now an organisation veteran, Achira showed great poise through 6IP where the only blemish on his record a second inning homerun given to Yusuke Oyama. The lineup couldn't quite put it together as only Yota Kyoda seemed to get a hand of Koyo "Blue Goat" Aoyagi as the Tigers pitched tossed a CGSO. 

Keisuke Tanimoto however marked his 12 game in a row scoreless in a remarkable run of form for a man that looked over the hill last season.

Adding to the sweep by the Carp, this loss series loss hurts as well. There could have quite easily been 3 wins made out of those 5 losses. In the end, it is what it is, and we need to now look forward to taking down the league topping Giants at Tokyo Dome.

In other news, Daisuke Matsuzaka threw 22 pitches in the bullpen yesterday on his road to recovery. Another starter that could make contributions this year, Kodai Umetsu made his pro-debut on the farm yesterday is well in what looked a solid outing where his first pitch clocked in at 148 km/h.

Series Wrap: Dragons vs Carp @Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium, 23 April - 25 April; Mazda, I have awarded you one yike.

For the first time in a long time, cautious optimism seeped in as the Dragons took their first road trip to Hiroshima for the season. The Dragons have been in good form and took the first series of the season against the Carp in Nagoya. The Carp have otherwise been in pretty ordinary form despite sweeping the Baystars at home in the previous round of fixtures.

Well, I know now that Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium is cursed. It is the stadium whose name should never be spoken. This place has been a source of nothing but feeling of helplessness the last 3 seasons. It is a blackhole to where only losses for the away team exist. While Jingu frequently induces heart attack and PTSD like trauma, there is nothing quite like the well of hopelessness about Mazda. Anyway, I think you can guess how well the series went.

  • Game 20: Dragons 2-3 Carp
  • Game 21: Dragons 0-5 Carp
  • Game 22: Dragons 0-2 Carp
Top open the series, two-homer day from Ryosuke Hirata would propel Yudai Ono to get through 8 innings work for just 2 runs conceded through a sac-fly and a solo homer in the opening two innings. Enter the 9th and while Shota Nakazaki was able to hold down his end, it was Raidel Martinez who would feel the wrath in a very familiar feeling walk-off loss where, with two outs and bases loaded, Tetsuya Kokubo managed a single to end the game. 

Yudai Ono could have quite easily started the 9th with 108 pitches up his sleeve, but it made sense to send out a reliever. Martinez is a good choice in most cases really and it's a shame it didn't work out. This game could have gone either way and it's a shame Ono couldn't pick up the W. 

Daisuke Yamai's hoodoo doesn't extend to Mazda and the Carp we found out. He surrendered 4 runs in the opening 3 innings including 3 solo shots to Tsubasa Aizawa, Ryosuke Kikuchi and Hisayoshi Chono. Katsuki Matayoshi would need to clean up 2 innings while Yu Sato and Daisuke Sobue ended what was a disappointing game. The bats never quite got going despite multi-hit games from Kyoda and Abe.

Up against Carp ace, Daiichi Osera, it was always going to be a tough game. The match-up however was kind with Enny Romero throwing down a 6 SO 7IP high quality start to give the Dragons the best chance of avoiding the sweep. The Dragons outhit the Carp 7 to 5 but he line-up never quite connected right as Osera completed a CGSO while the otherwise trustworthy Joely Rodriguez gave up a 2 RBI double in the 8th to Tsubasa Aizawa to end the game. 

The first game of the series was the most winnable and the final game had it's moment too but I think Osera pitched well enough to give himself a win. Ono and Romero both had great outings but they unfortunately went unrewarded. 

Series Wrap: Dragons vs Swallows@Nagoya Dome, 19 April - 21 April; THIS IS NAGOYA DOME.

Next up, a weekend series against the Swallows. At home, Yakult are a formidable force but away they are far more mortal. This was to be the case in this series where the Dragons would be able to pick up 2 more wins to continue their hot start to the season. A 2-run concession from Hiroshi Suzuki late in the second game would be just about the only sour note in an otherwise successful series.

  • Game 17: Swallows 2 - 4 Dragons
  • Game 18: Swallows 5 - 3 Dragons
  • Game 19: Swallows 5 - 7 Dragons
A Shotaro Kasahara start would begin the series up against the Swallows probably best pitcher, Yasuhiro Ogawa. It would be the Swallows who would strike first through a Munetaka Murakami dribbler, but the Dragons would immediately answer through in the bottom of the second and take the lead in bottom of the 4th both care of the red hot Toshiki Abe. That would be just about all she wrote as the Dragons and Swallows traded a run a piece in the latter innings before Hiroshi Suzuki closed out the game for his 6th save of the season on the back of another solid bullpen performance from Keisuke Tanimoto, Joely Rodriguez and Raidel Martinez. 

The second game of the series would be a very typical loss where the Swallows are involved. The Dragons had put the game on level pegging in the bottom of the 8th through a walk with bases loaded but would be made to pay for not taking advantage of their chances as after Suzuki loaded the bases, Yuhei would force in 2 RBIs to give the Swallows the lead in the top of the 9th. Taichi Ishiyama would clean up the Dragons top order in 8 pitches to end the game 5-3 to the Swallows. Viciedo would have a modasho game including one of the team's RBIs while Zoilo Almonte had multi-hit game as well. 

The series would end on a happier note despite Kazuki Yoshimi only going 3 innings deep before being replaced after he gave up 4 runs. Luckily for him, Yuki Takanashi had similar issues for the Swallows as he was replaced after 2 innings after an onslaught from Dayan Viciedo, Ryosuke Hirata and Yoshei Oshima. The Dragons would hold on to a 3-run lead going into the 8th where a Takahiro Araki solo homerun would keep the team on its toes, but a steadfast Hiroshi Suzuki would make-up for his previous night's mishap by taking down 3 of Yakult's top 4 batters to end the game. 

Yoshimi blowing up was certainly not part of the plan, but once again the bullpen showed that it can hold on to games. No less than 7 pitchers were used in this game with Yu Sato, Katsuki Matayoshi, Keisuke Tanimoto, Raidel Martinez, Joely Rodriguez and Hiroshi Suzuki holding the line. Viciedo would be the man with the bat as his 3 RBIs and 3 hits have him a consecutive modasho. Zoilo Almonte would also make 5 hits in 2 games as he had a modasho day of his own knocking in one run.

One thing that can be said, the starters really aren't giving the bullpen a rest. Kasahara, Yanagi and Yoshimi all barely got through 5-6 innings which will need to improve if the team want to keep moving forward. Luckily, it seems that Ono and Romero can consistently put up 7 quality innings before leaning on the bullpen.

Series Wrap: Dragons vs Baystars @Nagoya Dome, 16 April - 17 April; 2-game sweep over ailing Baystars

Good form would continue in another shortened series this time against the Yokohama Baystars. Alex Ramirez' team has been struggling this year (this makes my prediction of them winning the pennant look very bad) and the Dragons have been pretty strong at home this term.

A reborn Yudai Ono would take the first game while Baystars specialist Daisuke Yamai would clean-up in game two.
  • Game 15: Baystars 1 - 7 Dragons
  • Game 16: Baystars 1 - 3 Dragons
Rookie, Taiga Kamichatani would start for the Baystars in what I was predicting would be a close game. It was not to be however as a lead-off homer to Hirata in the top of the third seemed to rattle the righty as Fukuda, Shuhei and Abe added to the total to put the Dragons 4 up. The Dragons would continue to add on runs through the 4th, 5th and 8th while the Baystars snatched one consolation run in the 7th through a Taishi Kusumoto infield single.
Yudai Ono would get through 6.2 innings with 7 strikeouts while a relay of Shinji Tajima, Raidel Martinez and Daisuke Sobue cleaned up a tidy 7-1 victory. With the bat, Kyoda and Abe both claimed a modasho a piece while Hirata, Kato and Shuhei had multi-hit games.

In game two of the series, the Dragons once again took an early lead through Yohei Oshima in the bottom of the first while Abe and Hirata again scored 2 more runs in the 5th. Toshiro Miyazaki single to centre would allow Kazuki Kamizato to score but another tight shift from the bullpen ensured that it would be two wins on the trot. Yamai took an almost uncharateristic 9 strikeouts through 5.2 IP while Shuhei and Oshima both had multi-hit games. 

Overall, a short and sweet series where the Dragons looked comfortable. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Series Wrap: Dragons vs Tigers @Koshien Stadium, 12 April - 14 April; Hanshin derailed in slugfest

I always enjoy playing the Tigers. The main reason is that the outcome in completing unpredictable. Both teams have high potential if they all perform, but they very rarely do perform up to expectation which I think is what makes the match-ups fun. I also have friendly banter with Tigers blogger, T-Ray which probably helps too.

I honestly went into this series prepared to lose it and maybe nick one win, in the end an unlikely battering of Tigers ace Randy Messenger in game one followed by a more routine victory for Yuya Yanagi in the second game of the series gave the Dragons their first taste of .500+ ball since 2016.

  • Game 12: Dragons 9 - 4 Tigers
  • Game 13: Dragons 10 - 2 Tigers
  • Game 14: Dragons 2 - 5 Tigers

The Dragons took the Tigers by the scruff of the neck with Messenger on the mound pounding in 6 runs in the first 6 innings without reply. Dayan Viciedo was the destroyer as he slapped two two-run homers.

 A small fightback from the Tigers in the 7th to narrow the to gap to 2 runs would be blown away with a 3-run 9th inning including RBIs from Yota Kyoda, Issei Endo and Masataka Iryo. Yu Sato was the only pitcher not to cover themselves in glory as he gave up 3 runs in 19 pitches but the game was closed out well by a relay of Tanimoto, Rodriguez and the newly promoted Raidel Martinez. Ryosuke Hirata was out of the line-up but Endo provided adequate cover in the end in right-field. Oshima was moved down the line-up to 6th where he went 3-2. Endo and Viciedo were the only other two batters with multi-hit games. 

Yuya Yanagi would start the second game of the series and once again earn instant run support in the top of the first inning through Viciedo's RBI double. The Dragons would further turn the game on its head in the 4th as Yota Kyoda hit the team's first grand slam of the season. 

Further salt would be rubbed into the wounds of the Tigers in the 8th as Naomichi Donoue also teed off with a grand slam of his own. 
Amassing 17 hits and 10 runs, the Dragons ran riot off the pitching of Iwasada and Tsuguru Iwazaki. Yanagi otherwise completed his second quality start of the season while Tajima and Daisuke Sobue mopped up the remaining innings. Takuma Kato showed off his wares as he punched out a runner at second. Kato's prominent arm has been taken note of by Central League clubs with runners in the league so far the least likely to attempt a steal on his watch.

A game containing two grand slams for one side is quite a rarity and this was only the third time in Dragons history for this to phenomena to occur. The first was in 1969 between Shinichi Eto and Takumi Ejima against Hiroshima while the second game some 25 years later between Kazuyoshi Tatsunami and Mel Hall in 1995 against Yakult. This is the 26th time this has happened in NPB history and the first time ever the Tigers have been on the receiving end. 

The final game of the series had disaster written all over it with Kazuki Yoshimi pitching outside of he favoured Nagoya Dome, against Yuki Nishi in damp conditions. The mound at Koshien seems hard to adjust to at the best of times but it seemed even tougher than usual with a bit of water on top. The game was decided on a poor 4th inning showing from Yoshimi who gave up 5 runs after only recording one out in the inning including a 2RBI single to pitcher, Yuki Nishi. Takuma Kato and Yota Kyoda would record the only RBIs for the Dragons on teh night while the Dragons relief relay of Matayoshi, Sato, Tanimoto and Sobue kept the team in the mix. Viciedo and Kato were the only Dragons to record multi-hit games while Masaru Watanabe would claim his first pro-hit and steal. 

Overall an eventful series with plenty of fun to be had out of the first two games. Performance in the final game was however underwhelming and a dark note to finish on. It echoes what Yoshimi has seemingly become and that is a Dome specialist. Yoshimi needs to be more effective at other stadiums if he's going to be a central piece in the rotation, but it's looking as though Kashara, Yanagi and Romero are going to be the central 3 to take the team forward with the current reckoning. 

In other news, if you're keen to know about how top prospect Akira Neo is going, I do recommend checking out Eleven Sports Japan's free broadcast of farm games. He has shown good promise with the glove but has seen a steady slide down the order from second to 8th. Neo is currently batting .146 after 90 PA and has seemed to struggle to adapt so far. This hasn't stopped management from giving him a lot of time to work it out. Shun Ishikawa continues to rake as he's .409 after 71 PA with a 1.057 OPS. Hayato Mizowaki as well, who has seen most of his time on the farm at third base so far, has continued where he left of last year hitting .285 with a more modest .690 OPS. Steven Moya also continues bat 300+ and has a team high 4 homeruns so far. 

Out of the pitchers, Akiyoshi Katsuno, the 2018 #3 pick has looked one of the better starters with 3.04 ERA over 23.2 IP while Hiroto Fuku looks the best of the relievers with a 1.93 ERA over 9.1 IP (this is identical to Raidel Martinez' line on the farm as well, except with far fewer strikeouts.)

Series Wrap: Dragons vs Giants @Nagoya Dome, 9 April - 10 April; Series split in even contest

In preparation for the long stretch of baseball over the golden week period (April 27 - May 6) a shortened series against the Giants took place at Nagoya dome. Kazuki Yoshimi had been put on ice after being de-registered ahead of the series, while Yudai Ono and Enny Romero were expected to take on a sputtering Giants dreadnought.

It was to be a shared series with the Giants taking honours in the opening fixture despite striking out more than a teenage boy on the dance floor while Enny Romero backed up his first win in Japan with a second in a solid showing.

  • Game 10: Giants 3 - 1 Dragons
  • Game 11: Giants 2 - 3 Dragons
Former San Diego Padres third baseman, Christian Villenueva's two homer night would be the difference as he solo'd in the first and 9th off Yudai Ono and Joely Rodriguez respectively. The Dragons had taken the lead in the first inning through an Oshima sac-fly but tight pitching from Shun Yamaguchi kept the Dragons quiet. Yudai Ono absolutely made a mess of the Giants line-up however as he K'd 11 batters in 6 innings. The bullpen took a further 6 strikeouts with Shinji Tajima ripping through Yoshiharu Maru, Kazuma Okamoto and Daikan Yoh to complete a near perfect relief outing. 
Enny Romero's second win in Japan was to be less eventful than his first given the nervous moments toward the end with Hiroshi Suzuki closing out, but it would be another 1-run win perhaps marked by Nobumasa Fukuda's 5th deck home-run. The long 2-run dinger, was reported as the highest a Japanese Dragons hitter has taken the ball since Kosuke Fukudome in the mid-2000s. Fukuda and Hirata would finish with multi-hit games while Katsuki Matoyoshi, Tajima and Suzuki closed out the game in style. 

Two games that were close and fun to watch. Yudai Ono going on a K-ing spree was perhaps one of the fun moments to watch this series particularly with Hirokazu Ibata commenting in the lead-up that the Giants would struggle against him. Plenty of confidence to take from the series. Onward to Koshien to take on the Tigers.

Some other talking points out of this game was the call-up of Taiki Mitsumata who hasn't seen game time in the first team since 2016. He helped turn a handy double play and was otherwise defensively tidy at second base despite not registering a hit. 

Monday, April 8, 2019

Series Wrap: Dragons vs Swallows @Meiji Jingu Ballpark, 5 April - 7 April; A series of if, buts and shoulder slumps

On the road to the Swallows, the Dragons had the chance to be above .500 for the first time in over 3 years. The Swallows have done okay this season and if you look at the last couple of years of duels between the teams, it's nothing for the faint hearted, this was to prove to be the case once again.

The Swallows scraped a series win over the Dragons in a series Chunichi could have swept had some key moments gone their way. That is the way of things at Jingu.

  • Game 7: Dragons 7 - 8 Swallows
  • Game 8: Dragons 3 - 4 Swallows
  • Game 9: Dragons 3 - 1 Swallows

Shotaro Kasahara couldn't handle the heat of the Jingu kitchen in the first game of the series as he issued 5 walks and 4 hits for 3 earned runs over 3 nervous innings. The Dragons line-up did answer the call somewhat banging in 2 more at the top of 3rd to give them a 2-run cushion through Viciedo's second homer of the season.
The Swallows would get right back into with taking 3 runs off Katsuki Matayoshi in the bottom of the 5th to even things up. The Dragons would take the lead once more in the 7th from a Viciedo single but a hazardous 8th inning from Daisuke Sobue spelled the end of things as he gave up what would be the winning runs to Naomichi Nishiura. The Dragons would get a chance to get themselves back in the game with one out and runners on 2nd and 3rd but Viciedo and Fukuda were unable to convert to end a frustrating game. Shuhei had a quiet yet productive game reaping a modasho but it wasn't to be enough to quite pull his team over the line.

Game 8 was a battle between two of the oldest pitchers on the circuit, Daisuke Yamai and Masanori Ishikawa. It was to be a grittier battle than expected. Viciedo was the man of the moment stroking home 2 of the Dragons 3 RBIs, while Zoilo Almonte marked his first hit of the season with a just-about-clearing-the-fence homerun in the 7th.
The game would go into extras and the Dragons had their chance to win the game in the top of the 12th with once again a perfect chance to capitalise with 1 out and bases loaded only for pinch-hitting Kyohei Kamezawa to hit into a double-play. As is tradition at Jingu, the comeback would be on the for the home team as a pinch-hitting Nori Aoki swung for the fences with 2 outs on the board to spell the end of the game.

My reaction on Twitter appeared to sum up many's frustrations.

Game 9 was to be all about Yuya Yanagi who pitched a great 8 inning spell at one of his old stomping grounds. Jingu was where Yanagi and his Meiji University team-mates raised the Japanese Collegiate Baseball championship in 2016, and it was to be a memorable game for the former Meiji captain as he threw 4 strikeouts for one earned run. Hiroshi Suzuki would mop up for his 2nd save of the year while the damage with the bat was done by Zoilo Almonte's 2nd homer in as many games and Naomichi Donoue's 1st. Hirata would get claim a multi-hit game in a relative straight forward victory.
A frustrating series, but as has been how it goes with the Swallows over the past few seasons. A morale boosting win for Yanagi on Sunday however I think spells good things going forward at least. 

In the fallout, both Daisuke Yamai and Kazuki Yoshimi were de-registered over the course of the series which makes met think they may be swapping around the starting order a little bit. I think we can expect Romero to start in place of Yoshimi in the next series with either Yoshimi probably taking the 6th spot in the rotation. We'll be at Nagoya Dome next series against the Giants, so that makes sense to me. Where Yamai ends up is anyone's best guess, but he's done well so far so happy to let him have a few more trips through the rotation.

Some news has also come to the fore about bullpen roles which I found interesting. First of all, many are probably wondering where last year's last-half outstanding reliever, Yu Sato has gone. I've been wondering the same thing however it seems that Sato has been judged to perform badly when in high leverage situations, and has been designated to pitch in blow-outs whether losing or winning. I thought he was better than that, but that's the role he has been given thus far. The other situation specific reliever is Keisuke Tanimoto. He's been rolled out for a an inning here or a batter there. His role is as the team's fireman. He comes in with runners on base to help the team out of a jam. If Sato is lowest leverage, Tanimoto is just about the highest. So far he's performed well in his role too which is a big improvement on last year.
Apart from that, it's obvious that Suzuki remains the 9th inning guy, Joely Rodriguez is a set-upper and it seems Daisuke Sobue has been mostly used in a set-up role too along with Matayoshi and/or Tajima. 

Series Wrap: Dragons vs Carp @Nagoya Dome, 2 April - 4 April; Vets + Romero bring home the Koiyaki

The home opener came up against last year's pennant winners (and they year before that, and the year before that..) the Hiroshima Carp. The Dragons have had the best of the Carp at home on a number of occasions and a Carp team minus last year's MVP Yoshihiro Maru could be cause for some optimism. The first two cards had Yudai Ono and Kazuki Yoshimi lining up with the ball, both former staff aces, while Enny Romero, the unknown quantity, would back up on Thursday looking for his first win in Japan.

A series win would be the spoils for the Dragons who were perhaps a little unlucky not to get the sweep. A good result for the team and for Tsuyoshi Yoda's first home series:
  • Game 4: Carp 4 - 7 Dragons 
  • Game 5: Carp 3 - 2 Dragons
  • Game 6: Carp 2 - 3 Dragons
Game 4 of the season was decided after Geronimo Franzua uncharacteristically gave up 3 runs in the bottom of the 8th thanks to a 2 RBI, pinch-hit, Toshiki Abe single and a sac-fly from Masaru Watanabe to give the Dragons a 3-run buffer. Hiroshi Suzuki would claim his first save of the season. Yudai Ono threw down 7 innings for 4 earned runs which is what I'll call a par outing. Donoue and Viciedo both had multi-hit games with Abe being the top RBI getter with 2. 

Game 5, up against the Carp's 2/3 starter, Ryosuke Nomura was to be a heart-breaking bullpen loss thanks to a Seiya Suzuki 3-run dinger of Daisuke Sobue in the top of the 7th. Sobue had previously kept Suzuki entirely silent throughout their battles but the law of averages would see Suzuki give his team a 2-run lead. The Dragons would have a mini-come back in the 9th with Viciedo stroking home Yohei Oshima, but a poor attempt at base-running from pinch-runner, Kyohei Kamezawa saw the game end in a double play. 
An unfortunate loss decided on one pitch in the end. The Dragons had their chances but failed to make the most of them. Hirata and Oshima both had mult-hit games. Kazuki Yoshimi got through 5 2/3 innings before Tanimoto was brought in to break him out jail. While Yoshimi took a lot of hits (8) he dealt 6 strikeouts in his 103 pitch outing.

Game 6, the first start for Enny Romero since he arrived in Japan was up against Akitake Okada, truly one of the bottom of the rotation starters for the Carp. Nobumasa Fukuda would take the lead through his solo homer that landed in the upper decks of the left-stand. Some commentators have mentioned that it's likely the first time a Japanese players has lodged one up that high since Kosuke Fukudome. Yota Kyoda would join in on the action in the 6th with his first long-ball of the season while a wild pitch in the same inning with bases loaded gave the Dragons a 3-0 lead.  Romero would get through 6 innings on his debut, fanning 5, while Matyoshi and Joely Rodriguez kept the Carp on the back foot. There would be late drama in the 9th however as a Batista double down the third-base line would give the Carp one run while another scored in the middle of a ground-out. Hiroshi "Kimbrel" Suzuki would however keep his calm grabbing Ryoma Nishikawa on a left field fly from a 151km/h fastball. 
Seeing Romero on the sidelines with the worst case of "ants in ones pants" in the 9th was one for the more amusing points of this game. The Dragons did enough where it counted and Suzuki showed improvement on last year holding on to a narrow win despite giving up some runs and shouldering runners. 

A good home series win with a lot of positives to take away. Next up, the Swallows at Jingu. Ugh.

Series Wrap: Dragons vs Baystars @Yokohama Stadium, 29 March - 31 March; So close yet so far

The Dragons faced up against the Baystars for their opening series to the 2019 season and it was to be an interesting battle between two teams at different stages. The Baystars look like they're only a gear away from contenders, while the Dragons look like a team that are a gear shift down from being cellar dwellars.

The results didn't go the Dragons way, but the contests were hard fought and there were some positives and some talking points to take away.
  • Game 1: Dragons 1-8 Baystars
  • Game 2: Dragons 9-2 Baystars
  • Game 3: Dragons 2-3 Baystars
Game 1 was nervy for both sides. Shotaro Kasahara did well in his first opening day appearance keeping the Baystars quiet for 5 innings. While the scoresheet looks clean, it could be said that the Stars failed to capitalize on some pretty average control from Kasahara. Jose Lopes in particular missed a very meaty looking curve ball high in the zone that only went for a double when it could have easily cleared the fence on another day. On the mound for the Stars, Shota Imanaga threw down 11 strikeouts in his outing to mark a good looking comeback. It all came apart for the Dragons when Shinji Tajima took the ground. A comedy of errors took place where 6 runs were scored against a terrible looking Chuncihi defense. Uncoordinated errors from Issei Endo in left, ironically a defensive replacement, and Takuma Kato made what should have been a much lighter outing for Tajima a much worse looking one. 

Game 2 saw an inexperienced DeNA starter in Masaya Kyoyama take to the mound against Daisuke Yamai who has an uncanny knack for getting results in Yokohama. The line-up clicked this time around piling on 14 hits with Ryosuke Hirata being the most effective going 4-3 with 3 RBIs. Shuhei Takahashi also showed his mettle belting 3 hits in 4 PA for a single RBI return. On the mound, Yamai threw down 5 before a relay of Oguma, Sobue, Rodriguez and Hiroshi Suzuki closed out the game.

Game 3 was to be a narrow loss with Yuya Yanagi taking the mound. After some early jitters and giving up a couple of runs, Yanagi settled into the game and pitched out 6 innings. The Dragons were able to put runs on the board through Dayan Viciedo's solo homer while a runs was scored while a misfiring Almonte ground out. With 2 runs a piece on the board and the bullpen reusing arms from the previous day, Ryosuke Oguma was sent out for the 9th where he took a battering giving up the winning runs to the stars in a walk-off loss.

Overall, I think we gave the Baystars a run for their money. The Stars look a bit inconsistent among some of the better play they've been able to show off. Running away with a win of Kyoyama isn't that much of an achievement given how young he is. Shota Imanaga showed his class against the line-up. Yanagi and the team battled well in the final game but were ultimately punished by lack of bullpen depth. One wonders that the thought process of not sending out Hiroshi Suzuki was similar to Buck Showalter's now infamous gaff for the Orioles vs the Blue Jays some years ago in the MLB Wild Card game, but as it wasn't as quite an important game, we'll give Yoda and Awano a pass.

On the topic of bullpen management, the team put out a plan with their pitchers and worked with it. Kasahara was obviously told 5 innings and he was pulled for a relay of Matayoshi, Tanimoto, Tajima despite pitching fewer than 100 pitches. Daisuke Yamai similarly went through a quick 5 innings for 60+ pitches and was pulled for along relay of Oguma, Sobue, Rodriguez and Suzuki. Yanagi was given a slightly longer leash with Sobue, Rodriguez and Oguma pitching out the rest of that game.

The first two games we saw no pitcher throw consecutive days, but it kinda happened in the third game. I can only assume the logic behind that was that with Monday being a rest day they would have time to rest. Or, quite simply, the three reliever that went out were better conditioned to throw consecutively than others. Sobue is a bit of a workhorse, Oguma has been stretched out as a starter many a time and Rodriguez knows how to get through some work too.
I'm overall just impressed that there is a fairly clear plan with how to manage players, at least starters. There seems to be a focus on what will be effective vs what might be a good experience which reflects what Yoda's rhetoric has been in the pre-season of aiming to win.

Apart from an awful first game, the following two matches gave me a lot of hope for what we can do in the future. Overall, cautiously optimistic given the bounce back. I'm so far really enjoying seeing Naomichi Donoue get regular time as his defence is a joy to watch while Shuhei has been firing on all cylinders. Some fans have commented that just about every position on this team outside of left-field and maybe catcher have a change at snagging a golden glove. I'm certainly excited by the potential.