Reports of the sinking of the Hanshin Tigers were apparently a bit premature.
A Tigers team that lost its first nine games and fell as many as 16 games below .500 is now on a six-game winning streak and finally giving its notoriously passionate supporters something to cheer about in 2022.
The tigers haven’t fully risen from the ashes, but their detractors can’t shovel up quite as much dirt on them as before.
Especially not after a three-game downfall of the first-seeded Yomiuri Giants in a weekend road series. Hanshin started his winning streak with a win over the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and built steam with two more against the Chunichi Dragons. The Tigers then produced their best weekend of the year, beating the Giants 21-6 and winning a three-game series against them at the Tokyo Dome for the first time since 2013.
“I want to make a big wave and we started May well,” said coach Akihiro Yano after Sunday’s game.
Hanshin has played as well at the Big Egg as he has all season. Pitchers Koyo Aoyagi and Junya Nishi threw gems while Teruaki Sato hit a homer from yomiuri ace Tomoyuki Sugano, who threatened to rip the roof off the building. Yoshio Itoi drove in four runs during the series, and the Tigers put on a defensive highlight show in Game 2.
“I played with the momentum the team built behind me,” said Nishi after claiming his first win of the season. “I want to win more.”
These are the tigers that many have been anticipating this year. Hanshin’s 9-0 start was a head scratcher for a team that nearly won the pennant last year and still have plenty of talent. Part of that was foul play, but injuries and COVID-19 complications also played a part.
The Tigers are 10 games under .500 and still in last place despite the recent rebound, but things finally seem to be improving.
Hanshin hits better during the winning streak, and the team’s 38 runs in their last six games are the most in NPB since April 24. Hanshin relievers have scored just two runs in 17. After starting the year 1-10 in one-run matches, Hanshin racked up three wins in one-run affairs on April 27-29 before knocking out Yomiuri at seven on Saturday.
It will be some time before we know which extreme – the nine-game losing streak or the current six-game winning streak – is the more accurate representation of the team. When Hanshin settles in, the club can start winning more games and climb towards .500. If not, then this is just a peak before another valley.
On the half-full side of the cup is Aoyagi, who throws like the personal ace and is 3-0. Aoyagi has thrown two complete games, including one shutout, and has a .69 ERA in 26 innings. He started the Giants streak by allowing two runs — one earned — and hitting seven over the distance.
Yuki Nishi and Junya Nishi, who threw seven frames one-run ball against the Kyojin in his season debut on Sunday, also had starts to build on.
Aoyagi and Yuki Nishi are well-known commodities, but 20-year-old Junya Nishi’s performance was an eye-opener and shows he has the talent to replace the injured Haruto Takahashi. The Giants had no answer to his hard splitter, and fans are hoping for similar performances – he hit eight and allowed just three hits and a walk – going forward.
Among batters, Itoi has nine hits and five RBIs in his last six games. More importantly, some players who have collapsed could start warming up. Koji Chikamoto has seven hits (he was 3-on-5 on Sunday), including a pair of doubles and two walks in six games, while Kento Itohara hit a 0-on-11 slump with a 4-on-4 afternoon Sunday .
“Obviously I think the winning streak was big for us as a team,” said Yano.
The biggest thing that speaks for Hanshin is the calendar.
It’s May – just a month and changing seasons. If baseball is the marathon people like to say, then Hanshin is still about to start the race. There’s time — if not much room for error — for the Tigers to fight their way back into the Climax Series race.
Hanshin has the composition of an A-class team, but has a long way to go in the top half of the standings.
No one knows where the Tigers will go from here, but they’re not dead and buried yet.
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