Debate Heats Up Among Hanshin Tigers Alumni and Sportswriters if Manager Okada Can Handle It with Allenpa | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Debate Heats Up Among Hanshin Tigers Alumni and Sportswriters if Manager Okada Can Handle It with Allenpa

The Tigers have not been able to add much to their strength. The team's defensive rating is No. 1, but the main gun can't hit, can't score, can't defend. ...... There's not a shred of the momentum from last season, but they're still in contention for the top spot in the Central League.

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Manager Okada, who has attracted attention even off the field this season, such as by invoking a media interview refusal order on April 5th.

“I’ve been thinking about it a lot, oh man. The guy batting third has a terribly low batting average, you know. No matter who bats there, it just doesn’t work out.”

After securing their first series win in three games with the May 12th game against DeNA, returning the Hanshin Tigers to the top spot, Manager Akifumi Okada (66) complained to the press after the match.

In any case, we can’t hit.

The famed manager of the Tigers, who stirred up a whirlwind of excitement across the archipelago with Donden Magic and led them to their first championship in 38 years, was troubled. Second-year slugger Shota Morishita (23), who had been batting third since the opening, had fluctuated around a .230 batting average. The team, somehow holding onto the top spot, relinquished it to the new Giants on the 11th. On the 12th, Manager Okada, in a desperate move, placed leadoff man Koji Chikamoto (29) in the new third spot, but he ended up with 0 hits in 4 at-bats.

“Chikamoto, you know. I’ve been saying it for a while now. Don’t say Nakano (Takumu, 27) at 2nd, Chikamoto at 3rd. Can’t do it the same way as last year.”

Last year’s pattern of Chikamoto at leadoff, Nakano at second, and cleaning up which led to a landslide victory with a gap of over 10 games against second-place Hiroshima, has been nearly impossible to replicate, leaving Hanshin in dire straits.

“It’s not just Morishita who’s struggling to hit. Yusuke Oyama  (29), batting fourth, has a batting average in the low .200s, and Teruaki Sato  (25) can barely reach .200, experiencing the humiliation of being dropped from the starting lineup. The lackluster performance of the cleanup hitters is affecting the team’s morale. The team batting average is .229, second worst in the league (as of May 12, numbers are the same below). With a series of low-scoring games, the pitching staff will also be burdened. Frankly, it’s quite surprising that we’re still in first place.” (From Mr. A, a sports newspaper reporter for the Tigers)

Are the Tigers leading the race by chance? Or is it inevitable? Can they really achieve the “Allenpa”? We asked team officials, former players, and Tigers reporters for their candid opinions.

Shota Morishita: A young right-handed cannon with a full swing. He has a .320 batting average with runners in scoring position and ranks in the top 10 in the league in runs batted in.
Kouji Chikamoto: Already hit six home runs this season, showing power approaching last year’s eight home runs. His placement as the third hitter by Manager Okada is understandable.
Yusuke Oyama: The steadfast cleanup hitter of the Tigers is struggling this season. Some speculate that his lower body condition might not be optimal.
Teruaki Sato: Faced with many outs in scoring opportunities, leading to being dropped from the starting lineup. While he excelled after being called up from the minor leagues last year, this year has been a different story.

If Oyama starts hitting, the batting lineup will also improve.

“If the cleanup hitter doesn’t step up, it won’t be like last year!”

Injecting vigor into Oyama is Mr. Yoshiaki Oka, a former Tigers player and the current chief hitting coach.

“It’s clear that Chikamoto should be fixed in the leadoff spot. Chikamoto stirs things up, and Oyama responds. Alternatively, Seiya Kinami (29) at the 8th spot, followed by a sacrifice and Chikamoto’s turn. Chikamoto sets the stage, Chikamoto connects in the cleanup, and in the big inning. This is the ideal form of a strong Hanshin. Currently, because the cleanup hitter isn’t hitting, the 3rd and 5th hitters are putting too much pressure on themselves, thinking who will hit it if he doesn’t. Once Oyama starts hitting, both Sato and Morishita will mentally ease up. Then we can confidently entrust Chikamoto with the leadoff spot and see the lineup connect.”

Satoru Kanemura, who served as the pitching coach for the Tigers until 2022, was wondering why are the Hanshin Tigers struggling with poor hitting in the first place.

“The Tigers’ lineup this year consists of almost the same players as last year. After winning the championship, key players were pulled in various media interviews during the offseason, mainly in the Hanshin area. They experienced a different level of busyness than usual, and combined with the fatigue accumulated over the years, they seem to be struggling with adjusting their condition. Oyama also suffered a recurrence of an old injury during the preseason, complaining of stiffness in his lower body, leading to his absence. He was forced to make it to the opening game somehow. Hitters tend to struggle with slumps if they stumble at the start.”

Ryutaro Umeno (32, batting average .125) and Seishiro Sakamoto (30, batting average .220), both known for their defensive skills behind the plate, lack a significant presence at the plate.

Despite this, there’s a reason why the Hanshin Tigers are leading the league. The keywords are long-ball hitting and the for-ball.

“Last year, Manager Okada announced that he would give the same positive evaluation to the number of balls hit for a walk as to the number of balls hit for a single hit. This year, perhaps because of this, Chikamoto and Oyama (19), Morishita (16), and Nakano (14) are ranked third, sixth, and tenth, respectively, in the Central League’s top 10 list of four-ball hitters.

Furthermore, last year’s home run count, which was second worst in the league, has increased to 21, ranking second in the league just behind Yakult. While one could argue that aiming for power hits leads to a decrease in batting average. With the addition of power hitting, which wasn’t present last year, to the high on-base percentage, the total runs scored are 117, ranking second in the league. The efficiency is remarkable. However, the defense, which was last in errors last year, remains unchanged as the worst with 22 errors this season. Despite the difficulty of defending in Koshien due to its black soil, it’s a disappointing statistic.” (From Mr. B, a national newspaper sports reporter specializing in the Tigers)

Left: Aoyagi Koyo, who handed the opening pitcher role for the second consecutive year but couldn’t fulfill the duty. Despite not being in top form, he maintains stability without major collapses, indeed commendable.Right: Seishiro Sakamoto
Right: Hiroto Saiki, who had his best forkball thrown back at him by Shohei Ohtani (29) during the 2023 WBC warm-up match, is now the ace of the Hanshin Tigers’ right side.Left: Ryutaro Umeno

The key players in pitching and hitting are…

As for the pitching staff that achieved a league-leading team ERA of 2.66 last year, they are also performing well this year. With an ERA of 2.25 so far, they are at the top, showing the strong trust in Manager Okada.

“This season, Hiroto Saiki (25) is really performing well. He continues to deliver impressive pitches, combining a fastball with a maximum speed of 153 km/h with a slider and forkball, both with a batting average of .103. So far, he has achieved a record of 4 wins and 1 loss, with an ERA of 1.60. Even in the game against DeNA on the 12th, he delivered a stellar performance, dispelling the bad mood after the team fell to second place the previous day after a 7-point deficit.

On the other hand, it’s unfortunate for Shoki Murakami (25), who won titles such as Rookie of the Year, Best ERA, and Season MVP last year. He also shows consistency in his pitching this year, with an ERA of 0.88, surpassing Saiki. However, he has only achieved 2 wins and 2 losses so far due to a lack of support from the batting lineup. If the batting lineup improves, he will likely extend his winning streak smoothly. It’s exciting to see how far the right-handed duo of Saiki and Murakami can go in building up victories.” (From Mr. C, responsible for a key sports program on a major network)

While young right arms are shining, the veteran right arm duo is struggling to find their rhythm.

“Yuki Nishi (33) has pitched four games with an impressive ERA of 1.27, despite not reaching the required innings, yet he still has no wins and one loss. People around him joke that if Nishi keeps it up, he’ll get a rating of losing luck in Power Pro (a baseball video game).

Koyo Aoyagi (30), who has been entrusted with the opening pitcher role by Manager Okada for two consecutive years, has a record of one win and two losses with an ERA of 3.34, showing inconsistency. This does not build momentum for the team.” (From the aforementioned Mr. A)

As mentioned earlier, Mr. Okada emphasizes that both Nishi and Aoyagi are crucial in building the pitching lineup.

“If Murakami or Saiki pitch and win the first game of a series, but the second pitcher loses, it disrupts the momentum. That’s where experienced pitchers like Nishi and Aoyagi can step in to secure the win streak in series. Just like with the batting lineup, there’s a strategy in the starting rotation.”

Even the left-arm duo, Shoji Ito (28) and Kotaro Otake (28), who achieved double-digit wins last season, are far from their best form. Ito has an ERA of 4.26 so far and has been demoted to the minor leagues due to not meeting expectations. Otake also has an ERA of 3.82, with each having only one win, but they seem to have lost their shine from last season.

“Supporting the not-so-solid starting lineup is the powerful bullpen, considered the strongest among the 12 teams, but there seems to have been an unexpected miscalculation,” continues Mr. Kanamura.

“Daichi Ishii (26), who had an ERA in the 1.00 range last season, has been hit hard since the opening, and Yuta Iwasada (32), who made 50 appearances last season, and Kyoki Yuasa (24), who was also selected for the Japan national team, are struggling and adjusting in the minor leagues due to unexpected troubles.. Still, Manager Okada has managed to keep Takuma Kirishiki (24), Hiroya Shimamoto (31), and current draft picks Taisei Urushibara (27) and Masumi Hamachi (25). However, how these miscalculations will turn out in the future is uncertain,” adds Kanamura.

There are already voices pointing out the impact.

“As was the case with Tatsuo Ebina (26) and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (32), who were hit by a pitch one after the other in the game against DeNA on November 11, closer Yu Iwasaki (32) has been getting hit by pitches more frequently. The reason is clear that he’s clearly been overpitched. Even though he was considered an iron arm with 60 appearances last season, pitching 17 innings in 36 games accumulates fatigue.

This season, with the addition of nearly the only new talent, Guerra (28), the burden on Iwasaki, who is nearing veteran status, was supposed to decrease. However, due to successive injuries to setup pitchers, his number of appearances has ballooned. Gera has made 18 appearances, so it’s calculated that one of them is pitching in almost every game. At a pace of 140 appearances between the two, one of them is bound to break down,” explains a team insider, Mr. D.

Struggling to maintain their position in the race for the top spot, the Hanshin Tigers have many concerns. What magic will Manager Okada work on the team? The key players in batting are two young players.

“Manager Okada, with a broad perspective, makes strategic moves to change the flow of the game. For example, he might use Ryuhei Obata (23) instead of Kinami. Even if Obata manages to get multiple hits, after two games, Kinami is reinstated with the comment that the original regular is Kinami. Then, Kinami, feeling the pressure, starts hitting well. By fostering healthy competition, this ultimately leads to the team’s victory. If the lower batting order performs well, it also lifts the performance of the top hitters,” explains Okada as mentioned earlier.

The next move Manager Okada makes on the top batting order is the utilization of Hiroshi Inoue (22), a slugger candidate from Rikkyo High School.

“After being promoted on May 10th, he immediately started in the lineup and performed well with 4 hits in 12 at-bats over a 3-game series. In a Hanshin team where the contrast between regulars and substitutes seems more pronounced than elsewhere, the performance of young players called up from the minors and their success in the top positions have served as a great catalyst for the team.
Speaking of pitchers, I believe that players like Keito Monbetsu (19) and Haruto Takahashi (28) will become saviors around June or July when the starting rotation starts to feel fatigued. I saw Takahashi during this year’s camp, and he is indeed an exceptional player who throws incredible pitches,” Mr. Kanamura elaborates.

In a game following a shocking loss where even the prideful relief pitchers like Iwasaki allowed three home runs in a single inning, Inoue started as the leadoff batter. He contributed with a hit that led to the only run scored, halting the losing streak and securing a series win.

Hanshin, which increased its savings by 14 games in May and 11 games in August last year, doesn’t seem to be faring as smoothly this year.

“This year, every team will likely lay siege to Hanshin by deploying their aces, so running away with the lead will be difficult. With all six teams tangled up like a string of beads until the final stretch, it’s about who manages to grab that one win in the very end. That’s the kind of season I anticipate,” adds Mr. Kanamura.

Allen is tougher than that thing. However, if there’s anyone who can achieve it, it’s Manager Okada. At least, that’s what this magazine feels. Am I alone in thinking so?

Ryuhei Obata: a young hopeful dubbed as the “Toritani II.” He’s currently seeing more action as a pinch runner, but he’s aiming to take over the starting shortstop position from Kinami.
Hiroshi Inoue: a young slugger hailing from Rikkyo High School. Known for his boldness and powerful hitting, he has the potential to ignite the struggling Hanshin Tigers’ batting lineup.

From the May 31, 2024 issue of FRIDAY

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