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JapanBall: The 2011 Trip And BBQ Hosted by Marty Kuehnert, Sr Advisor to the Rakuten Golden Eagles

Game 2 Full house in Sendai

Last month, as they have for the past twenty years, Bob Bavasi and Mayumi Smith guided a group of tourists across Japan to discover the joys of the culture through baseball. Bavasi, the son of Buzzie Bavasi of Brooklyn/LA Dodgers, San Diego Padres, and California Angels fame, and Smith, the director of the Nippon Business Institute at Everett Community College in Washington state, operate JapanBall, a whirlwind tour that packs five baseball games in five different cities into seven days. I joined Bavasi, Smith, and twelve other baseball fans for a week of baseball, beer, and bullet trains.

Game 1: Hiroshima Carp at Yomiuri Giants – Tokyo Dome, Tokyo

For our first game of the tour, a producer and a cameraman joined us at Tokyo Dome. Hired by an Australian TV company to do a program about Japanese baseball, they interviewed each of us about what we think of the game and why we traveled so far to watch it.

Game 1 TV crew interviews Don Robbs


Fans who follow NPB were hoping for a glimpse of Carp pitcher Kenta Maeda, the reigning Sawamura (Japan’s version of the Cy Young) Award winner. Instead, the start went to Giancarlo Alvarado, a 33-year-old right-hander from Puerto Rico with no MLB experience. He gave up seven hits and two runs in 6.2 innings as the Carp defeated the Giants 6-3. Giants manger Tatsunori Hara pulled starter Shun Tono after only one inning of work, in which he gave up three runs.

The Japanese game is often described as small ball – leadoff batter gets on base, steals 2nd, is bunted to 3rd, scores on a sac fly – but on this night, we witnessed four home runs, including the 150th of Hiroshima first baseman Kenta Kurihara’s career. Although Kurihara is on the opposing team, the Giants mascots presented him with a bouquet of flowers as he crossed home plate.

 

Game 2: Nippon-Ham Fighters vs Rakuten Golden Eagles – Kleenex Miyagi Stadium, Sendai

The JapanBall crew took an early bullet train from Tokyo to Tohoku and headed to Sendai, a city hit hard by the massive earthquake that struck northeastern Japan on March 11. On September 10, almost six months to the day of the most devastating natural disaster to hit Japan in 140 years, we joined a packed house and watched two gems by two young pitchers, Nippon-Ham’s Yuki Saito and Masahiro Tanaka of Rakuten.


This was a dream matchup of two rivals, both 23, who faced each other in an epic showdown at the National High School Baseball Championship in 2006. After the aces battled to a 1-1 tie in 15 innings, Saito started the rematch the following day, striking out Tanaka to end the game and win Waseda Jitsugyo’s first title.

Tanaka is now in his fifth season with the Eagles; Saito, who attended Waseda University, is a rookie with the Fighters. In their first professional head-to-head matchup, both Yu-chan and Ma-kun – as fans affectionately call them – were impressive, each throwing complete games, the ninth of the season for Tanaka and the first of Saito’s young and promising career. After giving up a run in the bottom of the 1st, Saito settled down until the 6th, when the Eagles scored three runs. He struck out only one batter, but walked only one.

Tanaka prevailed on this day, and he seemed to grow more confident and dominant as the game progressed. Carrying a shutout into the 9th, Tanaka allowed a run on a two-out, bases-loaded walk – the only one he issued – to pinch-hitter Tomohiro Nioka. It was the only blemish in his 12-strikeout performance. After the walk, Ma-kun was visibly upset on the mound; the run ended his personal 24-inning scoreless streak.

Fittingly, Tanaka struck out the last batter to win the game 4-1. Despite my initial disdain that I once again missed seeing Yu Darvish pitch – he would start, and lose, the next day – this was easily the best game I’ve seen in Japan.

Afterward we were treated to a barbecue at the home of Marty Kuehnert, senior advisor to the Rakuten Golden Eagles. We met Luis Garcia, the Eagles first baseman who had a key RBI single and a tremendous defensive play in the game. We also had the opportunity to talk to Darrell Rasner, a right-hander who played for both the Nationals and the Yankees.

Marty Kuehnert (center) with Darrell Rasner and Luis Garcia


Rasner praised Tanaka, saying his teammate will one day play in MLB. But he had higher praise for Darvish. “He’s the real deal,” Rasner said of the talented and popular 25-year-old. “Yu Darvish will go [to MLB] after this season for $50 million [as a posting fee]. And it’s going to be the Yankees.”

We’ll find out soon if Rasner’s prediction is correct.

 

Game 3: Yokohama BayStars at Chunichi Dragons – Nagoya Dome, Nagoya

The 2011 JapanBall tour stumbled upon Milestone Week. This year the Chunichi Dragons are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the franchise. In this game Dragons leadoff batter Masahiro Araki went three for four en route to becoming only the eleventh player in NPB history with 1,500 career hits. His milestone came in the 33-year-old shortstop’s last at-bat. Araki also drove in the game’s only run, as Chunichi defeated the BayStars 1-0.

Game 3 Nagoya Dome scoreboard


Maximo Nelson, a Dominican in his fourth season with the Dragons, recorded only his seventh win of the season against 13 losses. He pitched seven strong innings, giving up four hits and striking out five.

 

Baseball Off Day in Kyoto

Higashi Honganji temple in Kyoto


Since Mondays are off days for all NPB teams, the members of the JapanBall tour had time to explore Kyoto, a city renowned for its many temples.

 

 

Game 4: Chunichi Dragons at Hanshin TigersKoshien Stadium, Nishinomiya

With arguably the loudest and rowdiest oendan (fan club) in all of Japan, a Hanshin Tigers game at Koshien Stadium outside of Osaka is an experience to behold. Every fan – EVERY fan – is into the game, faithfully reciting each cheer and hanging on every pitch from start to finish. We were as close to the oendan as we could get, and although we were cramped in the bleachers with no seatbacks or legroom, the majority of us delighted in the atmosphere.

Game 4 Hanshin Tigers fans


The crowd was loud and proud, except in the first inning, when Alabama native Jason Standridge, who pitched in 80 MLB games over the course of seven seasons, gave up two runs to the Dragons.

Some Arizona Diamondbacks scouts were in attendance to watch Taiwanese lefty Chen Wei Yin in his start against the Tigers. They were most likely disappointed with his performance. After being given the aforementioned first-inning runs, Chen gave them right back in the bottom frame. Tigers fans were back in the game and Chen wouldn’t make it out of the fourth inning.

It was a back-and-forth affair for the first four innings, with the Tigers answering almost every run scored by the Dragons. But it almost wasn’t enough as the Dragons prevailed 6-4. Throughout it all, however, the stadium was rocking with the best fans in Japanese baseball.

 

 

Game 5: Yomiuri Giants at Yokohama BayStars – Yokohama Stadium, Yokohama

Yokohama Stadium may as well have been the Tokyo Dome. The sparse crowd of fewer than 16,000 was dominated by Giants fans furiously twirling orange towels. In this game between the “Yankees of Japan” and the cellar-dwelling BayStars, we watched another strong pitching performance, this time by Giants rookie Hirokazu Sawamura. The right-hander was Yomiuri’s 2010 first-round pick out of Chuo University. Like his fellow 23-year-olds Saito and Tanaka, Sawamura showed us that someday he’ll win the award that bears his name.

Sawamura pitched seven shutout innings, surrendering five hits and striking out nine. The youngster also made a statement with the bat. He had an RBI double and scored a run in the Giants’ four-run fourth inning, redeeming himself for striking out while trying to bunt during a previous at-bat.

The Giants would go on to win 6-2, finally giving Sawamura some run support. Despite being among the top five in ERA in the Central League, Sawamura has a losing record.

Game 5 Giants fans cheer in Yokohama


After the game I joined Giants broadcaster and writer Wayne Graczyk at Benny’s Place, a sports bar in Yokohama. Benny was stationed in Japan during his stint in the Navy, and he never left.

 

JapanBall 2011 saw five baseball games in seven days, brilliant pitching performances by three young guns and milestones reached by two veterans. It included bullet trains and sightseeing thrown in for good measure. All-in-all it was just another week on the JapanBall tour!

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