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[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] NPB-Best Tigers Forced to Sit Out Weekend Series Due to Carp’s COVID-19 Outbreak

Several Hanshin players are having productive seasons at the plate to help carry the team to the top.

Ed Odeven

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The Hanshin Tigers are the winningest team in Nippon Professional Baseball this season. 

Manager Akihiro Yano’s club had six more wins than any of the other 11 NPB teams through Friday, May 21. 

Hanshin (28-12-2) picked up its latest victory with a 3-1 decision over the Tokyo Yakult Swallows on Wednesday, May 19 at Koshien Stadium. The teams’ series finale was rained out on May 20, forcing it to be postponed.

A day later, the Tigers were in Hiroshima making preparations for their weekend series against the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. The three games were called off, however, due to a COVID-19 breakout affecting the Carp.

Three Carp players (Ryosuke Kikuchi, Kaito Kozono and Yuya Shozui) tested positive for the coronavirus on Monday, May 17. Three days later, five additional Carp players (Hisayoshi Chono, Ryutaro Hatsuki, Tomoki Ishihara, Minoru Omori and Seiya Suzuki), plus batting coach Toyo Asayama and a team staff member.

In the Tigers’ aforementioned win over the Swallows, rookie starter Junya Nishi earned his first career victory in NPB. He threw five innings without allowing a hit.

Nishi walked the first two batters he faced. He finished with four walks and one strikeout.

After the game, the 19-year-old admitted he was extremely nervous.

“My heart was pounding so much I thought it was going to fly out of my chest,” Nishi was quoted as saying by Kyodo News in describing the first inning.

In addition to helping Nishi record an important milestone in his young career, the Tigers avenged their 14-3 loss to the Swallows on the previous day.

Will the unplanned layoff affect the Tigers’ performance on the field? Will Yano’s players struggle to maintain their overall high performance level that they’ve shown in the season’s first 42 games?

They are scheduled to play in their next game on Tuesday, May 25 against the visiting Chiba Lotte Marines. It’s the opening day of this year’s interleague play, which will run through June 13.

In trying to keep sharp, the Tigers scheduled practices for May 22-23 at Koshien Stadium.

One key to Hanshin’s success this season is strong batting by several players.

Most noteworthy perhaps is the fact that four Tigers are among the league’s top 13 in batting average: Kento Itohara (sixth, .307), Jefry Marte (eighth, .300), Koji Chikamoto (11th, .281) and Jerry Sands (13th, .275).

In addition, rookie third baseman/outfielder Teruaki Sato is tied for the team lead in home runs (10) and has also clubbed 10 doubles while appearing in all 42 games. He is No. 1 in RBIs (32). Sands also has 10 homers.

The Tigers lead the Central League in batting average (.259) and runs per game (4.55).

Among Hanshin’s starting pitchers, Koyo Aoyagi (3-2, 2.00 ERA, third-best in the CL) and Yuki Nishi, Junya’s distant cousin (3-3, 3.53 ERA), have had the most success this season.

Aoyagi has struck out 33 batters and walked 12 in 45 innings. Nishi has 31 strikeouts while issuing 15 walks in 51 frames.


Setup man Suguru Iwazaki is an indispensable part of the team’s bullpen corps. In 22 games, Iwazaki is 1-0 with a CL-best 16 holds. 

Venezuelan teammate Robert Suarez leads the CL in saves (13). In 21 innings, Suarez has allowed one walk and recorded 17 punchouts. He has a sparkling 0.43 ERA. Suarez previously played for the Hawks in the 2016, 2018 and ’19 seasons. He had 25 saves in his first season with the Tigers last year.

The Tigers, whose lone Japan Series title came in 1985, have roughed up the Swallows and Yokohama DeNA BayStars, going 7-1-1 against the former and 7-2 against the latter.

In the Central League, the Yomiuri Giants (22-15-7 through Friday) sit in second place, followed by the third-place Swallows (18-16-7). In the Pacific League, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles (22-16-8), Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks (22-17-7) and Mariners (19-8-7) are the top three clubs.

Darvish Having a Strong Season for Padres

Yu Darvish has made a smooth transition to the San Diego Padres.

He’s 4-1 with a 1.81 ERA in nine starts. Darvish is No. 8 in the National League in strikeouts per nine innings (11.36) and tied for seventh in strikeouts (69). In 54 2/3 innings, he’s allowed 35 hits and issued 13 walks.

Darvish and Seattle Mariners left-hander Yusei Kikuchi are scheduled to square off on Sunday, May 23 at Petco Park in San Diego.

In his most recent start, Darvish, who was acquired in a trade with the Chicago Cubs in December, tossed seven scoreless innings on Monday, May 17 against the Colorado Rockies. He allowed four hits, fanned 10 batters and had zero walks.

MLB.com reported that the 2020 NL Cy Young Award runner-up summed up his thoughts on his performance this way: “All of my pitches were working for me today.” 

He continued his post-game analysis by saying, “It was definitely fun pitching out there, not just the results, but it was more about me being able to pitch the way I want to and having that release of what I was looking for.”

The Padres and National League West rival San Francisco Giants had Major League Baseball’s best record (28-17) and winning percentage (62.2%) through May 21.

The Padres took a six-game winning streak into the interleague series, while the AL West’s Mariners were 21-24.


RELATED: BASEBALL | Yu Darvish, Kenta Maeda Are Runners-Up for Cy Young Award

Golf

Matsuyama Pulls Into Contention at PGA Championship

After shooting a 1-over par 73 in the opening round of the PGA Championship, Hideki Matsuyama moved into the top five on the leaderboard with a 4-under 68 on Friday, May 21.

As a result, Matsuyama was tied for fourth at the midway point of the year’s second golf major at 3-under 141. Matsuyama climbed 37 spots in the standings before the second round was completed to move within two shots of the leaders. South Africans Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Branden Grace also had the same two-round scores entering the third round on Saturday, May 22 at Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina.

South African Louis Oosthuizen (71-68) and American Phil Mickelson (70-69) shared the lead heading into the weekend. Brooks Koepka (69-71) was one stroke off the pace.

Mickekson, 50, is vying for his first major title since the 2010 Masters.

Canadian Corey Conners carded a 5-under 67 to take the lead after the first round. He shot a 3-over 75 in the second round.

Matsuyama was pleased with his performance in the second round.

“I really hit my driver and second shots very well today, and that gave me a lot of birdie opportunities, which I was able to capitalize on,” he told reporters.

A reporter asked Matsuyama how he handled the challenges of the course in the second round, saying, “It looks like the way you have to play this golf course, you have to accumulate a lot of birdies, as much as you can, until you get to 14, 15. Do you get ready for that?”

He responded with a detailed answer.

“Yeah, you’re absolutely right, from hole No. 5 until 12, you’d better make some birdies on those holes because those last four or five holes are very difficult,” Matsuyama said. “Being able to make birdies on those downwind holes makes it a whole lot easier because you’re not under the pressure. You can lose a stroke here or there on the final holes.”

Auto Racing

Tsunoda Eyes Positive Experience at Monaco Grand Prix

Formula One rookie driver Yuki Tsunoda knows that each race presents a new challenge for him.

While he’s learning a lot in his first season on the F1 circuit, Tsunoda is quick to point out that he still has a lot to learn.

This is particularly evident for him in preparing for the upcoming Monaco Grand Prix, which will be held on Sunday, May 23.

“I don’t have any experience here, so I just have to build up the pace,” Tsunoda was quoted as saying by British magazine Auto Sport.

“I think the approach to Monaco compared to other tracks is a little bit different, especially as you don’t want to go immediately pushing hard and go into the wall.

“So I think building up the pace is the most important thing. And I think to have proper clean sessions, especially FP1 (first practice session), FP2 (second practice session) and FP3 (third practice session) is really important for building up confidence, and to prepare for qualifying.”

Entering the Monaco GP, Tsunoda, an AlphaTauri Honda driver, is in 13th place (out of 20) in the F1 driver standings with two points. His AlphaTauri Honda teammate Pierre Gasly is 10th with eight points. (Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton is No. 1 with 94 points.) Tsunoda finished in last place at the Spanish Grand Prix on May 9.

The Monaco Grand Prix is the fifth of 23 races on F1’s 2021 calendar.

RELATED:
[ODDS and EVENS] Reigning Indy 500 Champion Takuma Sato Chases History in Pursuit of Another Title

Rugby

Former Wallabies Coach Joins NEC Green Rockets‘ Staff

Michael Cheika, who coached the Australian national rugby team from 2014-19, is the NEC Green Rockets’ new director of rugby, the Japan Rugby Top League announced on Thursday, May 20.

The 54-year-old Cheika will be involved in the Green Rockets’ transition to Japan’s new three-tier, 25-team rugby circuit, which replaces the Top League in 2022. (The first division is set to have two six-team conferences.)

“I am very excited to be joining NEC in this new role,” Cheika said in a team-issued statement. “Together with the company, the coaches and the players we will aspire to bring back the DNA of the NEC Green Rockets to bring pride and enjoyment to the whole NEC community.

“I look forward to working hard together with everyone to orchestrate a brighter world for NEC rugby and rugby in Japan.”

Since leaving the Wallabies two years ago, Cheika has stayed busy in the sport, working as a consultant for the Sydney Roosters and the Argentina national team. He was also hired as Lebanon’s coach for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup, set to begin in late October in England.

Cheika was World Rugby’s 2015 Coach of the Year.

Basketball

B. League Teams Make Coaching Moves

Luis Guil and Shawn Dennis were named the new head coaches of the Shiga Lakestars and Nagoya Diamond Dolphins during the past week.

Guil guided the Saga Ballooners for two seasons, leading the fledgling club’s promotion from B3 to B2.

As a first-year franchise, the Ballooners went 30-10 in 2019-20 under Guil. 

This season, Saga had a 30-26 regular-season record and advanced to the B2 playoffs.

“They were two incredible years that I will never forget,” Guil said in a statement posted on the Ballooners website. “I wish you all the best in the future.”

Takayuki Yasuda, who served as an assistant coach on Guil’s Saga staff, will join him at Shiga.

Shiga, a first-division club, is coming off a 23-36 season.

Addressing the Lakestars fans, Guil said he wants his new team to display lots of energy on the court.

“We hope that you will come to support us and have fun with us, and we would like to create a team that runs 100% per second on the court and bring the Shiga Lakestars to the highest point of the league,” the Spaniard said.

Dennis coached the Lakestars for four seasons, compiling an overall record of 86-134.

Before his Shiga stint, the 56-year-old was an assistant coach for the title-winning Utsunomiya Brex in the 2016-17 campaign.

“I enjoyed the experience of four years here,” Dennis said in a statement. “Of course, I think everyone wanted to be a team going to the championship. I think last season was a team that was one step closer to participating in [the playoffs]. Unfortunately, a pandemic happened and I think we overcame a lot of adversity, but that dream was closed.”

For Nagoya, Shingo Kajiyama is out after four seasons as head coach. He now steps into a new role as assistant general manager.

Dennis is looking forward to his new challenge with Nagoya, which went 32-24 this season.

“I promise to work hard and continue the great work that has been done before me,” the new Diamond Dolphins bench boss said. “Together we aim to make our club a consistent championship team and I am excited to perform at a very high level and to make our sponsors and fans very proud of us.”

Elsewhere, Don Beck takes over as the B2 Kumamoto Volters’ new head coach. The well-traveled American mentor, whose coaching career began in 1978 at Santa Barbara City College, most recently led the Toyama Grouses (2018-20). The Volters finished with a 26-34 record in 2020-21.

Hachimura Helps Wizards Advance to Playoffs

The Washington Wizards secured one of NBA’s eight Eastern Conference playoff spots with a resounding victory over the Indiana Pacers in the play-in round on Thursday, May 20.

Rui Hachimura scored 18 points in the Wizards’ 142-115 rout of the Pacers in an elimination play-in game. They previously lost to the Boston Celtics in their play-in opener.

Up next: For No. 8 seed Washington, a best-of-seven series against the East’s top seed, the Philadelphia 76ers, starting on May 23.

“We are not just playing around, we are here to win games,” Hachimura said of the first-round series against Philly. “We’ve just got to be physical. That’s the key to win those games.”

Swimming

Hirai to Step Down as JSF Chairman

Norimasa Hirai, who guided breaststroke specialist Kosuke Kitajima to double gold glory at the 2004 Athens Olympics and 2008 Beijing Games, is retiring from his post as Japan Swimming Federation chairman.

A formal announcement will be made in June, according to multiple published reports.

The 57-year-old Hirai became JSF chairman in 2015. He also serves as the Japan swimming national team head coach, a position he was elevated to in 2008.

Takayuki Umehara and Daichi Suzuki are among the names being mentioned as top candidates to succeed Hirai as JSF chairman. Suzuki, a gold medalist in the 100-meter backstroke at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, has previous experience in that post, having served in that position from 2013-15.

Quotes of the Week

“The advice we have from the WHO (World Health Organization) and all other scientific and medical advice that we have is that ー all the measures we have outlined, all of those measures that we are undertaking are satisfactory and will ensure a safe and secure Games in terms of health. And that’s the case whether there is a state of emergency or not.”

John Coates, IOC vice president, speaking on May 21 about plans to proceed with the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics despite concerns due to the ongoing pandemic.

“I knew coming in I was facing a really good pitcher, but [Mariners starter Manabu] Mima has been delivering a string of gutsy performances recently, so I wanted to get a run on the board as quickly as I could and I’m glad I could drive one in.”

ーChiba Lotte Mariners infielder Shogo Nakamura, who smacked a run-scoring  double in the third inning off Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles hurler Masahiro Tanaka on May 22 at ZOZO Marine Stadium. Lotte defeated Rakuten 3-1.

Editor’s note: Interested in submitting a news item for possible inclusion in the Japan Sports Notebook? Send an email with relevant information to e.odeven@japan-forward.com, or JAPAN Forward’s comment’s page  or Facebook page and look for future editions of Japan Sports Notebook on our website.

Author:  Ed Odeven

Follow Ed on JAPAN Forward’s [Japan Sports Notebook] here on Sundays,  in [Odds and Evens] here during the week, and Twitter @ed_odeven.

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Ed Odeven is a longtime sports journalist who previously worked for The Japan Times as its chief basketball reporter for nearly 14 years. He also covered a wide range of other sports for the newspaper, including at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2012 London Games. A graduate of Arizona State University, Odeven worked for several newspapers in the Grand Canyon State before moving to Japan. He has freelanced for dozens of media outlets around the world.