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[NPB NOTEBOOK] Ryuhei Matsuyama Comes Through in the Clutch for the Hiroshima Carp

A mainstay for the Hiroshima Carp in a pro career that began in 2008, the fan favorite delivered a go-ahead double in a comeback win over the Swallows.

It's still early in the 2024 NPB season but already there have been plenty of thrills. On Thursday, April 4, the Hiroshima Carp staged a dramatic comeback against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows at Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium.

With the Swallows leading 3-0 after six innings, the hometown Carp scored two runs in the bottom of the seventh to chase starter Keiji Takahashi.

But the real drama came in the bottom of the eighth.

Takashi Uemoto hit a single to right off Yakult reliever Noboru Shimizu that tied the game 3-3.

With two out and runners at first and third, veteran pinch hitter Ryuhei Matsuyama came off the bench and connected for a double to right that scored two more runs to give the Carp a 5-3 lead.

Masaya Yano then plated another run to complete the thrilling 6-3 comeback.

Shota Nakazaki worked a scoreless eighth for the win and Ryoji Kuribayashi retired the side in the ninth for the save to send the fans home happy.

Hiroshima improved to three wins and two losses and was just a half game behind the front-running Yokohama DeNA BayStars in the Central League standings (as of April 4).

The best part of Thursday's win was seeing 38-year-old veteran Matsuyama come through with a big clutch hit. Few things in baseball are as satisfying for a manager than to see a pinch hitter come through in a situation like that.

Hiroshima Carp
Ryuhei Matsuyama greets fans after the Hiroshima Carp's victory over the Tokyo Yakult Swallows on April 4 at Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium. (©SANKEI)

Ryuhei Matsuyama: a Hiroshima Carp Fan Favorite

Matsuyama, a native of Soo City, Kagoshima, has spent his entire 15-year career with Hiroshima. With his trademark tinted goggles, he's a fan favorite. 

The left-handed batter played outfield for the Carp but is used now primarily as a pinch-hitter. His best season was in 2017 when he hit 14 homers and had 77 RBIs, both career highs.

Thursday's clutch hit was his first in five at-bats this season and allowed the Carp to win their third straight game after losing the first two of the season to the BayStars.

"I wasn't able to produce in my previous at-bats so I was very happy to come through and contribute to the win," said Matsuyama. "It was a total team effort tonight."

It's always great to see the veterans come through in big situations like that and, in an age where players jump from team to team, it's refreshing to see a player spend his entire career with one team.


Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters starter Koki Kitayama faces a Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles batter on April 3 at Es Con Field Hokkaido. (KYODO)

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A Near No-No for Fighters' Kitayama

Less than two weeks into the new season, NPB almost saw its first no-hitter.

Right-hander Koki Kitayama took a perfect game into the seventh inning on Wednesday, April 3 to lead the Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters to a 4-2 win over the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles at Es Con Field Hokkaido.

The 24-year-old Kitayama retired the first 19 batters he faced before giving up a walk and two singles that allowed Rakuten to score a run.

After the game, Kitayama said the no-hit bid crossed his mind.

"I was pretty tired out there so I was thinking that I would give up a hit," Kitayama told reporters. "But I want to work hard so that I can actually achieve [a no-hitter] at some point."

Kitayama struck out 10 and gave up one run on two hits with one walk to earn the win.

The Fighters' Chusei Mannami slugs a three-run home run in the fifth inning against the Eagles on April 3. (KYODO)

Chusei Mannami accounted for all four of Nipponham runs. The talented outfielder drove in a run in the first inning and connected for a three-run homer in the fifth off Rakuten veteran Takayuki Kishi.

Tsuyoshi Shinjo's Fighters are off to a decent start with a record of three wins and two losses through games of April 4.

Heading into Friday's games, they were a half game back of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and Saitama Seibu Lions, who shared the early lead in the Pacific League.

MLB Opener in Japan

Nippon Professional Baseball Commissioner Sadayuki Sakakibara revealed on Wednesday, April 3 that Major League Baseball has set March 19 and 20 as the dates for a season-opening series in Japan next year.

Media reports in the United States have said the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs will open the 2025 season in Japan. That would pit Los Angeles Dodgers superstar Shohei Ohtani against Seiya Suzuki of the Cubs.

Yoshinobu Yamamoto pitches for the Dodgers and Shota Imanaga for the Cubs so it would be a dream matchup for Japanese fans.

While a venue has yet to be decided, one possibility is Nipponham's Es Con Field. Ohtani played for the Fighters before heading to the major leagues in 2018.

Tokyo Dome, which has hosted many MLB games in the past, is also a leading candidate.

On March 20-21, MLB opened the 2024 season in Seoul for the first time with games between the Dodgers and the San Diego Padres.

Chiba Lotte Marines starter Roki Sasaki pitches against the Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters on March 31 at ZOZO Marine Stadium. (©SANKEI)

Sasaki Off to a Strong Start

With numerous MLB scouts in the stands, Chiba Lotte Marines flamethrower Roki Sasaki took to the mound for the first time this season on Sunday, March 31 in a game against Nipponham.

The 22-year-old right-hander gave up just one run on six hits on 95 pitches over five innings while striking out seven and walking one at ZOZO Marine Stadium.

Sasaki left the game with a one-run lead, but the Fighters rallied with two runs in the top of the ninth to spoil Sasaki's bid for a win. He ended up with a no-decision.

His fastball reached as high as 159 kph (99 mph) during the game attended by 29,290.

"I was able to do the bare minimum," Sasaki was quoted as saying by Kyodo News. "My off-speed pitches were good but I wanted a little more life on my fastball."

Sasaki threw a perfect game in April 2022 agains the Orix Buffaloes.

He is high on the wish list of just about every major league team but whether the Marines will make him available through the posting system before he reaches free-agent status is another question.

Rougned Odor (©SANKEI)

Odor Shown the Door

Rougned Odor did not last long in Japan.

The scrappy Venezuelan, who played in 1,154 major league games, didn't even get in one NPB game with the Yomiuri Giants.

Odor abruptly quit the Giants after being asked to start his first Japanese season in the minors, the Central League club announced on March 26, three days before opening day.

The 30-year-old did not join the Giants in spring training until the middle of February and hit just .176 in 12 preseason games.

After being told he would start the season in the minors, Odor submitted his resignation and the Giants consented.

There is a bit of a cultural difference at work here. MLB players would almost never consider spring training stats to be of any importance.

Spring training is for getting ready for the regular season. In Japan, coaches may look at a lack of production and effort in preseason games with a sterner eye.

That being said, Odor just didn't seem like the type of player who would fit in in Japan, let alone with the tradition-bound Giants.

He's probably better off pursuing opportunities elsewhere.


Author: Jim Armstrong

The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for over 25 years. You can find his articles on SportsLook.


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