Could Japan have another two-way star in the making? The Hanshin Tigers sure hope so.
The Tigers’ 20-year-old pitcher Junya Nishi connected for his first home run as a pro while throwing a complete game as Hanshin pummeled the Central League-leading Tokyo Yakult Swallows 8-1 on Wednesday, May 18.
“I was looking for that pitch and gave it a full swing,” Nishi said of his two-run shot in the second. “The second I connected I knew it was gone.”
Nishi’s homer at Jingu Stadium was one of four hit by the Tigers, a team in need of a feel good story after getting off to a horrendous start to the 2022 season.
As of this writing, they are last in the Central League with a 15-27-1 record. (Additional statistics and team records posted below are also through May 18.)
Nishi struck out seven and allowed one run on six hits over the distance to improve to 2-0 on the season.
Nishi pitched and batted as a high school senior and was Japan’s designated hitter in baseball’s 2019 Under-18 World Cup. In that tournament he connected for two homers and tied for second with 17 strikeouts.
Open to Two-way Play
As the country that produced two-way star Shohei Ohtani, Japan seems more open than MLB to allowing players to pursue this route.
As the team that gave Ohtani the opportunity to develop as a two-way player, the Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters seem open to the idea.
Manager Tsuyoshi Shinjo has indicated that pitcher Kenta Uehara will give it a shot during the upcoming interleague games.
The 28-year-old left-hander has appeared in 13 games this season in middle relief for the Fighters. He has 15 strikeouts, one hold and a 2.35 ERA in 13 games with four runs given up.
He’s also shown some proficiency with the bat down on the farm.
“We’ll see what he can do in the interleague games,” Shinjo said, adding that he plans to use him both as a starter and a batter in the same game.
Back in the Saddle
After being shelled for seven runs on May 3, Yoshinobu Yamamoto was back to his old self in his next start.
Yamamoto, the ace of Japan’s gold-medal winning Tokyo Olympic team, struck out nine batters while giving up five hits and walking three over eight scoreless innings to lead the Orix Buffaloes to a 1-0 win over the Chiba Lotte Marines on Saturday, May 14.
“I was in a lot of tough spots but the guys did a great job on the fielding side and that led to victory,” Yamamoto was quoted as saying by Kyodo News. “I was trying to keep calm while pitching as well as I could.”
The Buffaloes scored the only run of the game when leadoff hitter Shuhei Fukuda doubled to open the home half of the first inning and scored on Yume Mune’s single that was misplayed in center field.
Former MLB reliever Yoshihisa Hirano pitched the ninth to earn his 11th save of the season.
Murakami Mashing It
Yakult’s young cleanup hitter Munetaka Murakami is off to a spectacular start for the Swallows.
The third baseman hit back-to-back grand slams against the crosstown rival Yomiuri Giants on May 6 and 7.
Ever since then he’s been on fire and now is tied for the Central League lead in home runs at 12 with Kazuma Okamoto of the Yomiuri Giants.
Murakami leads the CL with 35 RBIs.
The 22-year-old slugger, who was also a member of Japan’s Tokyo Olympic team, was the CL MVP last season when he belted 39 homers and drove in 112 runs to help the Swallows to the Japan Series championship.
Along with Okamoto, he has developed into one of the best cleanup hitters in NPB.
A native of Kumamoto, Japan, Murakami was selected by the Swallows in the 2017 amateur draft after they lost out in the Kotaro Kiyomiya sweepstakes. Kiyomiya, of the Nipponham Fighters, was the popular pick that year. But it turns out the Swallows got the better of that draft.
There hasn’t been a lot of good news this year for the Yokohama DeNA BayStars.
The team is off to a lackluster 16-21 start and is in fifth place in the CL standings, just slightly ahead of the struggling last-place Tigers.
But one bright spot for the BayStars is their performance against the rival Chunichi Dragons who are currently in fourth place.
The BayStars have won five consecutive decisions versus the Dragons at Nagoya Dome. The last time they had similar results was when they won six straight at the same venue in 2001.
The BayStars capped their current win streak at Nagoya Dome with a 7-6 win on Wednesday, May 18.
Shugo Maki hit a three-run homer, his 10th of the season, in a four-run third to power the BayStars.
Chusei Mannami has been one of the bright spots for the Nipponham Fighters this season.
Mannami is the son of a Congolese father and a Japanese mother. He grew up in Tokyo’s Nerima Ward and was an outstanding track athlete in high school, in addition to baseball at which he excelled.
The outgoing 22-year-old outfielder cracked two homers in one game for the first time on Wednesday, May 18 in the Fighters’ 11-4 win over the Orix Buffaloes.
Mannami connected for a two-run blast in the fourth and then added a three-run shot in the seventh when the Fighters scored five runs to put the game out of reach.
The Fighters have put together a nice little run, sweeping the powerful Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks at Sapporo Dome in a three-game set between May 13-15 then splitting a two-game showdown against Orix in Kobe.
Author: Jim Armstrong
The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for more than 25 years. You can find his articles here.