Reports of the Hanshin Tigers’ demise were, it seems, a little premature.
A Tigers team that lost its first nine games and dipped as far as 16-games under .500 is now riding a six-game winning streak and finally giving their famously fervent supporters something to cheer about in 2022.
The Tigers have not fully risen from the ashes, but their detractors cannot shovel quite as much dirt on them as before.
Especially not after a three-game dismantling of the first-place Yomiuri Giants in a road series over the weekend. Hanshin started its 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, outscoring the Giants 21-6 and sweeping a three-game series against them at Tokyo Dome for the first time since 2013.
“I want to make a big wave and we got May off to a good start,” manager Akihiro Yano said after Sunday’s game.
Hanshin played as well as it has all season at the Big Egg. Pitchers Koyo Aoyagi and Junya Nishi tossed gems, while Teruaki Sato hit a homer off Yomiuri ace Tomoyuki Sugano that threatened to knock 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 was pitching with the momentum the team has built up behind me,” Nishi said after picking up his first win of the season. “I want to win more.”
These are the Tigers many expected to see this year. Hanshin’s 0-9 start was a head-scratcher for a team that nearly won the pennant last year and still has plenty of talent. Part of it was poor play, but injuries and COVID-19 complications also played a role.
The Tigers are 10-games under .500 and still in last place despite the recent upturn, but things finally seem to be looking up.
Hanshin is hitting better during the win streak, and the team’s 38 runs over the its last six games are the most in NPB since April 24. The Tigers’ starting pitchers have allowed 10 runs — nine earned — over their past 37 innings, and the Hanshin relievers have yielded only two runs in 17. After starting the year 1-10 in one-run games, Hanshin posted three straight wins in one-run affairs from April 27 to 29 before blowing out Yomiuri by seven on Saturday.
It will take time before we know which extreme — the nine-game losing streak or the current six-game winning run — is the more accurate representation of the team. If Hanshin has leveled off, the club may start winning more games and climb toward .500. If not, then this is just a peak before another valley.
On the cup-half-full side is Aoyagi, who is pitching like the staff ace and is 3-0. Aoyagi has thrown a pair of complete games, including a shutout, and has a 0.69 ERA in 26 innings. He kicked off the Giants series by allowing two runs — one earned — and striking out seven over the distance.
Yuki Nishi and Junya Nishi, who threw seven frames of one-run ball against the Kyojin in his season debut on Sunday, have also had starts they can build off.
Aoyagi and Yuki Nishi are known commodities, but 20-year-old Junya Nishi’s performance was an eye-opener and shows he has the talent to help replace the injured Haruto Takahashi. The Giants had no answer for his hard splitter, and fans will be hoping to see similar performances — he struck out eight and allowed just three hits and a walk — going forward.
Among the batters, Itoi has nine hits and five RBIs over the past six games. More importantly, some players who have been slumping could be beginning to warm up. Koji Chikamoto has seven hits (he was 3-for-5 on Sunday), including a pair of doubles, and two walks in six games, while Kento Itohara snapped an 0-for-11 slump with a 4-for-4 afternoon on Sunday.
“Of course, I think the win streak has been big for us as a team,” Yano said.
The biggest thing working in Hanshin’s favor is the calendar.
It’s May — just a month and change into the season. If baseball is the marathon people love to say it is, then Hanshin is still near the start of the race. There is time — though not much margin for error — for the Tigers to claw their way back into the Climax Series race.
Hanshin has the makeup of an A-Class team but faces a long road to the top half of the standings.
No one knows where the Tigers will go from here, but they’re not dead and buried just yet.
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