Once upon a time, there were Tokyo Fighters, and they called Big Egg home. It wasn’t really all that long ago. 2003 just keeps getting further and further away. Sapporo is home now, but they still spend some time every season saying hello to old friends, and bringing that infectious Pacific League spirit back into the staid Tokyo Dome. It’s fun to imagine the mighty Kyojin being irritated by the echoes of a raucous crowd that continue to bounce around the facility long after the last team bus pulls away. One can almost see an army of white gloved hands spraying air freshener.
Luis Mendoza gently toed the dirt with his shoe and moved it around. He stretched his arms above his head and took some warmup pitches. It was game time. Yuya Hasegawa began with an infield fly. It was misplayed, and he was rewarded for a dash to first. To the chagrin of armchair managers, Kenta Imamiya bunted Hasegawa to second. Yuki Yanagita grounded to second, so Hasegawa went to third. Seiichi Uchikawa took a strike, swung at a strike, watched one go outside, and checked his swing on a low pitch. The very next offering was parked in the seats. A happy round trip was taken. Akira Nakamura worked a full count, and bounced one to Takuya Nakashima. After a half frame, Hawks led 2-0.
Rick van den Hurk was staked to an early lead. Daikan Yoh skittered one to Yuichi Honda. Haruki Nishikawa drove a single bounce single to Gita. Kensuke Tanaka gave fans a taste of the foul ball warning at Big Egg. While other stadiums use doorbell chimes or a short clip of music, this audible blast sounds like an impatient grouch whipping around a warehouse on a giant forklift. Tanaka struck out. Sho Nakata was up when Nishikawa stole second on a bad throw to Honda that could have ended up worse. Sho sent a towering fly to the far corner of fair territory in left. Hasegawa was waiting with outstretched arms to welcome the final out of the 1st inning.
To start the 2nd, Nobuhiro Matsuda grounded the 2nd pitch to short. Barbaro Canizares swung and missed a 1-2 offering. Honda filled the count to overflowing, and took a base. Hiroaki Takaya also needed that base after a 3-1 count. He apologized profusely for the inconvenience, and provided Honda with new accommodations at second. Glorious and wonderful things could have happened after Gita took a swing at the first offering, but alas the flight ended with a nice catch at the wall.
Kensuke Kondoh was jammed and gone quickly on a grounder. Brandon Laird bounced a long single off the wall in left. Yuya Taniguchi popped out to Matsuda in foul territory. Shota Ohno battled before a shallow fly to Gita. Two innings were history.
Leading off the 3rd, Imamiya sent a pitch scampering into right field, headed toward first, and flipped his bat in a singular graceful motion. Gita took a 3-0 offering for a strike, then took 3-1 for a walk in the park. A very important crowd climbed the hill, and very important things were discussed among very important people wearing Fighters uniforms. Uchikawa would have liked another tater, but sent an angry bunny hopping toward Mendoza instead. It looked like he gloved the ball, but things went pear shaped between the mound and second. Imamiya scored easily. Nakamura sac fly to left scored Gita. Matsuda grounded into a double play to make things slightly more pleasant for the home away from home team, but Hawks had extended their lead to 4-0.
Nakashima battled and eventually grounded out, but not until his 8 pitch at bat represented 22.22% of the pitch count for van den Hurk at that point in the 3rd frame. Yoh also grounded out, but with fewer offerings. Nishikawa took a 3-2 walk on 6 pitches, then headed for second just before Tanaka saw a pitch to make his count 3-0. Nishikawa made it safe and sound, then Tanaka took 3-1 for a walk. Fortune smiled upon the Hawks, and Sho flew out.
Canizares jump started the 4th by driving a single to left. Honda reached on a ground ball, but Canizares was forced at second. Takaya had a 1-1 count when Honda stole second standing up, and what amounted to a sacrificial carpet cruiser advanced Honda to third. In a cruel twist of baseball fate, Hasegawa popped up before Honda could motor home.
In the bottom of the 4th inning, Kondoh was punched out looking. Laird poked a double into the left field corner. Taniguchi flew out to Hasegawa. Ohno struck out on 3 pitches. Laird went back to the dugout.
The 5th inning looked promising as a concept. Imamiya grounded a slider to second, but then Gita took another full count walk. Uchi followed up with a single to left. Successive flies from Nakamura and Matsuda put a hold on things.
Perhaps the offense couldn’t fulfill the 5th inning wishes, but maybe defense could give it a go. Nakashima grounded to Honda. So far so good. Yoh grounded to Imamiya. Hawks just needed one more. Nishikawa took a tater trot after a solo shot, and Fighters narrowed the gap to 4-1. So, um, they just needed one more. Tanaka grounded to Uchikawa. That did it.
The top of the 6th contained one Canizares strike out, one Honda ground ball to second, and one Takaya ground ball to first. That wasn’t very much fun, so think about a field full of baby goats doing popcorn hops.
Sho lifted a towering foul to Takaya who made the play right in front on the dugout. Kondoh flew out to Yanagita. Laird fouled one back so hard it cleaned off Takaya’s mask, then sent a pop fly in foul territory to Uchikawa. If you need ’em, the bottom of the 6th can have baby goats too.
The top of the 7th went by quickly as well. Hasegawa grounded out on a close play at first, Imamiya lined out to second, and Gita fanned. Is everyone still okay with happy thoughts of baby goats? If you need reinforcements, think of kittens playing badminton over a fishing net. Fighters fans sang along for Lucky 7. No balloons, but plenty of spirit.
Shoring up the defense in the bottom of the frame, Nakamura moved to left field. Taniguchi struck out without moving any timber at all. Shingo Ishikawa pinch hit for Ohno, and was caught watching a slider paint the outside edge. Nakashima hit a sharp grounder to Uchikawa to end the inning.
Kazutomo Iguchi took over for Mendoza in the 8th. Uchikawa was rounding first while his pop-up was caught a few meters away, then Nakamura and Matsuda both grounded out to short.
Edison Barrios came in for the Hawks to hold the lead. Yoh whiffed, and it was a good start. Nishikawa whacked a (Ni-Ham branded) porcine chop, then beat the throw to first. Tanaka lined a single to left. After a successful double steal, it was time for a meeting on the mound. Sho only needed a swing to tie it, but that last one didn’t connect at all. Two out, and runners at 2nd and 3rd for Kondoh. Timely to right scored a pair, and drew the Fighters closer at 4-3. Laird had a 2-2 count when Kondoh took off for second. In short order, the tying run was erased.
Iguchi was back out on the bump for the 9th. Canizares popped a foul to the catcher. After that task was quickly completed, Iguchi gave way to Takayuki Kato. Honda sent a rug runner to third. Shinya Tsuruoka came in to pinch hit for Takaya. He was out on a second opinion after a check swing.
Dennis Sarfate took the ball, and locked the door tight. Laird laced the first pitch to Honda. Taniguchi was fanned. Ichikawa also created a bit of breeze to end the game. Hawks won 4-3. Sarfate picked up his second save, and van den Hurk was still undefeated. With a vital tater in his recent past, Uchi was the hero interview.
Official NPB Box Score.