Kusanagi Stadium first opened the gates to the people of Shizuoka in 1930. In 1934, an exciting 17-year-old named Eiji Sawamura struck out 9 MLB stars at the new ballpark. Lou Gehrig touched him up for a solo shot, but that was the sole run plated on his watch. Lou quietly joined Jimmie Foxx and Babe Ruth performing a stirring strikeout nonet. Nine years before Cy Young hardware was introduced in the US, some of the greatest pitchers in Japanese baseball history began chasing the annual Sawamura Award. Five years before Ohtani was born, future generations of Pacific League arms were finally included in the competition. Like many foreign stars who played before the turn of this century, Eiji Sawamura remains relatively obscure in the United States. At 17, Ohtani was already getting overseas attention. Because Ohtani, a good number of people have read this far. A warm hello to those people, and a standing invitation to follow the Hokkiado Fighters because Ohtani.
With 86 years of history leading up to each moment, a series of very baseball things happened. Shohei Ohtani found enough of Shuhei Fukuda to issue a free pass. Yuichi Honda flew out. Yuki Yanagita bounced one across the dirt to second erasing Honda, but Gita got a pillow. Seiichi Uchikawa joined him with a poke into center. Barbaro Canizares grounded out to end the threat of a big 1st inning.
In the bottom of the 1st, Tadashi Settsu took his place in history as well. Daikan Yoh went down swinging. Haruki Nishikawa took a 4 ball stroll. Kensuke Tanaka singled to left, and another very baseball thing happened. Sho Nakata sent a fly sailing over the right field fence. A trio of Fighters strode home. Kensuke Kondoh bounced to Settsu. Brandon Laird tapped to Nobuhiro Matsuda. Fighters led 3-0.
The second frame began with a classic battle. Matsuda did the foul dance. Ohtani glared and threw a bow tie. After the next offering, the scorekeeper gave Matsuda a base hit when the handles fell off an infield grounder. With Akira Nakamura in the box, a feral delivery sent Matsuda to second. Nakamura bounced to Sho, and he relayed to Otani. Matsuda scampered down to 3rd. Kenta Imamiya drew a walk. Ayatsugu Yamashita flew out to shallow center, so the light was shining bright red. Even an off-line throw home wasn’t quite enough to score Matsuda. Fukuda inherited runners at the corners. He fouled the first sphere high over the backstop. After taking a ball, he fouled another to a happy fan. Ohtani escaped unscathed when Fukuda swung and missed at a nasty bucket of old fish heads.
The bottom of the 2nd was a relatively routine set of circumstances. Yuya Taniguchi grounded to Honda. Shota Ohno grounded to Imamiya. Takuya Nakashima walked to create a possibility for damage. Hawks mitigated the risk. Yoh grounded to Matsuda.
Leading off the 3rd, Honda was retired swinging. The 2-2 and 3-2 deliveries to Yanagita were low, so he took a stroll. Uchi drove a bouncing single into right, and Gita motored to third. Canizares watched a strike, cut and missed a high fastball, let the next pitch sail even higher for a ball, and ended with a wave at an outside pitch. Matsuda sent the right fielder almost to the wall, but it just didn’t fly quite far enough.
Settsu started the bottom of the 3rd inning with 42 pitches. Nishikawa lined out to Honda. Tanaka lined out to Imamiya. Sho fouled out to Uchi. Settsu ended the bottom of the 3rd inning with 46 pitches.
Nakamura opened the 4th by taking a 1-1 offering to the leg. Imamiya dropped a sacrifice bunt that sent him to second. Yamashita grounded a ball toward third, and Nakamura went to third. Just 90 feet remained, but Fukuda missed strike three.
Bottom of the 4th with a B. Kondoh with a K. Laird with an L singled. Taniguchi with a T, and also with a K. Ohno with an O was plunked with an ouch and a walk. Nakashima lined out to Matsuda with an M.
Honda gave it a good ride, but Yoh made a running catch to start action in the 5th. Gita took 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 3-1, and a hack made it 3-2. Time for another walk. Uchi watched a bender for a ball, and popped a high foul to the catcher. Canizares started with a long high foul that traveled to the very edge of the seats along the right field line. He then took a curve for a strike, spoiled the next pitch foul, and whiffed through a nasty slider.
Yoh drove the 73rd pitch from Settsu into the right field corner for a double. Nishikawa bunted him to 3rd. Tanaka swung and missed, then hit a grounder. Yoh took off on contact, and joined the laundry drying out on the line. He started a rundown that brought a crowd to take part, but he never reached the dish. In a hollow victory, Tanaka wound up at 2nd long enough to say hello to Honda and Imamiya. Sho flew out to Fukuda, and he tossed the ball into the stands.
The 6th began with a Matsuda double to left field. Nakamura singled, and things were looking good. Not so much when Imamiya bounced into a twin killing, but Matsuda scored to make it a bit less painful. Yamashita took the 101st offering from Ohtani high and outside for a full count. He stayed in what remained of the chalk rectangle with a few fouls, then there was a foul tip that looked an awful lot like strike 3. Given a second chance, Ohtani arranged for an emphatic swing and miss to end his outing. It wasn’t a shutout anymore. Fighters still led 3-1.
Kondoh singled to center, but that was the extent of his excursion. Laird went down swinging, Taniguchi hit a comebacker, and Ohno grounded out to wrap up the 6th.
Keisuke Tanimoto took over for the 7th. Yuya Hasegawa pinch hit for Fukuda, and promptly pounded a double to center. Honda had his heart in the right place, but grounded to short. Tanimoto scrambled out of a 3-0 sand pit to strike out Yanagita. His lumber didn’t budge for 6 pitches. Uchi watched a 3-1 wander past outside his window, and took the walk that Gita wanted too. After Uchi arrived and unpacked, a catcher and pitcher conference was broken up by blue. Location was still an issue, and Canizares sent 3-0 a pitch to Yoh deep in center. Luck was with the Fighters, and it was time for Fighters Lucky 7. Balloons flew out of the stadium on the wind like wishes. Perhaps wishes have to be collected later too.
Settsu was still working the delivery route when Nakashima struck out on the 99th parcel. Soon after, Kudo and the coaching staff had a good chuckle. With the intention of putting down a bunt, Yoh popped up foul. It was caught, bounced out, was caught again, then finally bounced free from a valiant and contorted Yamashita. Instead of exiting on a play for the year-end highlight reels, Yoh grounded out routinely to Matsuda. Nishikawa filled his count before flying out to Nakamura in right. With seven in the books, the Fighters still led 3-1.
Chris Martin scaled the pitching butte without his gorp. He would regret it. Matsuda knocked one past a diving Nakashima for a single. Nakamura battled 2-2, a pick off attempt was unsuccessful, and he drove the next selection foul into the seats. Martin uncorked his second odd offering of the inning, but this one bounced high off the catcher. Matsuda scooted to second. With a full count, Nakamura fouled off another pair before drawing a pass. Fujii came out and said something to Imamiya on his way to the box. Kenta may have been given the secret to the universe in that brief conversation, but he showed bunt, so that’s a possibility too. Predictably, Martin stepped off. To complete the scene, Imamiya masterfully dropped it down on the first offering. With both Hawks in scoring position, Yuki Yoshimura came in to bat for Yamashita. While some mulled over why extending this opportunity to a slumping veteran was a good idea, a ground ball scored Matsuda. Sure, he was still carrying the weight of an 0-fer season. However, the burden was made fractionally lighter with a non-zero number glowing next to RBI on a cold and unforgiving scoreboard. Hirotoshi Masui took over for Martin who was probably relieved to be relieved. “Hells Bells” played in the stadium because closer. One could also apply that expression to the situation. To older generations, “HB” encompassed things like finding your work truck in a pond, or seeing a hillside on fire. Nakamura was 90 shrinking feet from tying it up. Hasegawa fidgeted, twitched, and did his thing. He also wore the first offering on his right pant leg. Honda took a ball high, then Masui unleashed a wild pitch. Nakamura said hello to Honda on his way past the plate, and Hasegawa took advantage of a special TV offer at second base. Ohtani abruptly got up and left the dugout. Maybe he went to call the fire department. In his absence, Honda walked on 4 straight. Ryuma Kidokoro came in to run for Hasegawa at 2nd. Yanagita watched three balls while taking two lightning cuts and misses. The payoff pitch was a punch out. After an inning to forget for Hokkaido, it was only a 3-3 tie.
Yuya Iida climbed the hill for the Hawks. Tanaka got himself a full count, then grounded out to Imamiya. At first glance, Yuya Iida is a relief pitcher playing Randolph Mantooth playing a relief pitcher. It works. After vanquishing a batter, Yuito Mori came in for Iida. Sho stepped in and sent a meteor high above Honda. With the wind doing wind things, Honda had to shift into reverse at the last minute. He still made the catch with a smile. Because everyone enjoyed seeing him make the last play, Kondoh unselfishly skipped one along the ground to Honda.
Hirotoshi Takanashi came in to hold the line for the Fighters. Unlike his peers, he did it without a lot of trouble. Uchi grounded out to third. Canizares hit a long loud foul, then a more diminutive foul, then an infield fly. Matsuda grounded out to short.
Mori was back to try for some bonus baseball. The plan looked feasible when Laird flew out to Honda. Taniguchi took all the way to 3-1, and drove a ball past Imamiya. Ohno showed bunt, and it was textbook. Taniguchi arrived at 2nd. Satoh called for a meeting on the mound. Sometimes all it takes is a little pep talk. This wasn’t one of those times. Nakashima watched 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, and 4-0 before seeing enough. Nothing intentional was going on at all, and it showed on the face of Kudo as he watched Yoh step into the batters box. He took one high and inside, then drove the next pitch just out of reach of the right fielder. It might have been Yoshimura. It really doesn’t matter now. There’s nothing to be mad about when the fans are that happy. Fighters finished an exciting trip to a heritage facility with a 4-3 sayonara.
Official NPB Box Score.