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Saturday, March 30, 2024

Opening Day 2024: Dragons collapse despite encouraging Yanagi Start

 I had hoped to do some more podcasts in the pre-season, but it has been difficult to find 90 minutes to myself and even harder to find time to edit. So, I will focus on my written word. Here, I'd like to celebrate first that baseball is back, talk a bit about the opening game against the Swallows in Tokyo, and talk a little about the opening day roster and line-up. 

The Dragons didn't have the greatest start to the year. Everything was looking rosy until the 8th inning after a good start from Yuya Yanagi and a go-ahead homer from old-newbie, Sho Nakata. Last year's star out of the bullpen, Shinya Matsuyama would however have a torrid time of locking down the 8th as he gave up 4 earned runs. Debutant, Christian Rodriguez fumbled to start the inning while Matsuyama walked Takeoka bringing up Santana who drove in the equalizing run. A wild-pitch to Yuhei Nakamura gave the Swallows the lead. Yugo Umeno would come-in for damage control but sac-fly and a Haruki Nishikawa triple put the game beyond reach at 7-3. The Dragons would muster one more run in a bases-loaded situation in the 9th thanks to Sho Nakata's sac fly, but last year's golden boy Seiya Hosokawa would hit into a double-play to end the game. 

A number of solid and torrid debuts to round out a disappointing end. Mikiya Tanaka had a good game at the top of the order where he managed a hit a walk and a sac-bunt. Shuhei Takahashi hitting in the #3 spot justified his selection going 3-5 including a double and two RBIs. While Sho Nakata was the best of the rest with his first homer in a Dragons uniform and 2 RBIs. The pitching was perhaps a little lacklustre, but after a shaky 3rd inning, Yanagi righted the ship in his start, taking 4K but giving up 8 hits. Katsuno and Shimizu both had clean innings. 

Overall, a tale of individual performances. Rodriguez two errors were particularly glaring for a player that was selected for his defensive prowess. However, as a 21 year-old debutant, playing in front of a away crowd on opening day is a pretty awe-inspiring feat, so I'm willing to give him benefit of the doubt for having the jitters. However, as Tatsunami has mentioned a willingness to cycle options in the middle-infield, may it have been a smarter idea to start with someone like Kaito Muramatsu, who played at Jingu in college to start the year? It is only one game however and I hope that Rodriguez is given further chances to bounce-back. 

Shuhei Takahashi continued his excellent spring form. Hitting in the hole and smacking that double, is going to go a long way to getting this team underway. If he is on form with Nakata and Hosokawa hitting behind him, that could be a great boon to the line-up. Where Ishikawa fits in when he gets back will be the question, but I'd be open to seeing some second-base Shuhei at some point if that's what ends up happening. Having an additional left-handed bat that has gap to gap power is also a big boon for this team that has a lot of right-handed hitters. If Shuhei can solidify himself in this line-up as a guy that can hit for average and chip in with extra-base hits, the team is going to be better balanced. Now, for the sake of things, let's look at the line-up that was trotted out. 

CF Hironori Miyoshi

2B Mikiya Tanaka

3B Shuhei Takahashi

1B Sho Nakata

RF Seiya Hosokawa

C  Takuya Kinoshita

LF Alex Dickerson

SS Christian Rodriguez

SP Yuya Yanagi

Considering the balance of hitters here, I don't like what's been done with grouping together Nakata, Hosokawa and Kinoshita. I would prefer to see the left-handed Dickerson at least elevated to #6 in this order to break-up the right handers. You will still have a clump of righties at the bottom of the order with Kinoshita, Rodriguez and Yanagi, but apart from Kinoshita, you're not expecting much from those three anyway. I would argue however that starting Muramatsu, a lefty, at short would solve this issue and you can essentially zig-zag your line-up the whole way down. 

Something I wanted to impress on in the podcast that I was creating, was that the Dragons should really take the idea of platooning seriously. This team have a number of players of similar level and there's no real harm in swapping guys out who are better equipped to take on the starting pitcher of the day. Ideally against a guy like Cy Sneed, you'd maybe start Muramatsu over Tanaka or Rodriguez (although I understand the want to use Tanaka). You could start Shingo Usami over Kinoshita. Once someone like Seiji Uebayashi becomes available again, you could have him in the outfield mix as well maybe giving Hosokawa a rest against righties occasionally. 

Something that does however go against this is Tatsunami's choice to win by strength in defence. The philosophy in Japanese is known as, "守り勝つ" which was popularized in the Dragons culture under Hiromitsu Ochiai. The selection of Rodriguez, despite his fumbles, was based on this. The Cuban is seen as a better defender at short than Muramatsu, hence why he plays over the Meiji Uni alum, at least for now. Don't expect to see too many bats-over-gloves kinda types too often. 

The series has just started and the next game will start in a moment, so adios for now.