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[NPB NOTEBOOK] Yoshitomo Tsutsugo Makes Winning Return with BayStars

The 32-year-old slugger hit a dramatic three-run homer in his first game back with the BayStars since 2019, leading Yokohama past the Swallows.

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo marked his return to NPB in style, belting a three-run homer in the eighth inning on Monday, May 6 to lead the Yokohama DeNA BayStars to a come-from-behind 6-5 win over the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.

Making his first appearance for the BayStars in five years after playing in Major League Baseball, Tsutsugo came through when it mattered most.

His three-run blast off Yakult reliever Jose Espada into the right-field stands at Yokohama Stadium capped a four-run rally that allowed the BayStars to move into a tie for second place in the Central League standings with the Yomiuri Giants, 2½ games back of the Hanshin Tigers.

"My teammates were encouraging me even before the game," Tsutsugo said. "I saw everyone's determination to win the game even when we were behind. It was a huge moment for me."

BayStars
Yoshitomo Tsutsugo poses with the BayStars mascots after the game on May 6. (©SANKEI)

Before he left for the majors, Tsutsugo was a fan favorite in Yokohama. He was one of the most feared hitters in NPB in the late 2010s but could not establish himself with an MLB club.

After failing to catch on in MLB, the 32-year-old Tsutsugo signed a three-year contract with Yokohama, with an annual salary of ¥300 million JPY ($1.9 million USD) through the second year and subject to change in the third.

Yokohama fans couldn't be happier. He was greeted with chants of "Go, Go, Tsutsugo," every time he came to the plate in Monday's game. Tsutsugo also had a double to left in the seventh, a walk in the second and a long fly out in the fourth that advanced the runner.

BayStars
Yoshitomo Tsutsugo is seen on the giant scoreboard at Yokohama Stadium on May 6. (©SANKEI)

BayStars Veteran Bounced Around MLB

In a total of 182 major league games for the Tampa Bay Rays, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates between 2020 and 2022, he struggled to a .197 batting average with 18 home runs and 75 RBIs.

The veteran outfielder went to this year's spring training with the San Francisco Giants on a minor league deal but became a free agent when he wasn't able to nail down an MLB roster spot.

Tsutsugo was Samurai Japan's cleanup hitter at the 2017 World Baseball Classic. His return to Yokohama automatically makes the BayStars a better team in the highly competitive CL.

Along with hitters like Shugo Maki and Toshiro Miyazaki, the BayStars have a formidable lineup.

Tokyo Dome, home of NPB's Yomiuri Giants, in a March 2024 file photo. (©SANKEI)

Giant Move?

Could the Yomiuri Giants finally be moving out of Tokyo Dome?

Tokyo Dome opened in 1988, replacing the old Korakuen Stadium which was right next door and is now the site of the Tokyo Dome Hotel.

A multipurpose domed stadium with a capacity of 45,600 for baseball games, Tokyo Dome has also been host to a great many concerts over the years in addition to being home of the Giants.

Michael Jackson, Celine Dion and Madonna are just some of the big-name stars who have graced the stage at the Big Egg, as it's also known as.

Regardless of what you think of it, Tokyo Dome is an aging facility that lacks many of the good qualities of newly built facilities both in Japan and abroad.

Companies tasked with redeveloping the site of the iconic Tsukiji fish market said on Wednesday, May 1 that they plan to invest ¥900 billion ($5.8 billion) in an ambitious project that would include a multi-purpose stadium and several high-rise buildings.

As Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings is one of 11 companies involved in the project, speculation soon arose that the Giants would naturally move to the new facility.

But not so fast. 

On the same day news of the monetary value of the investment came out, the president of Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings denied any plans to move Japan's most popular team from its current home.

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Newer Ballparks are More Fan-Friendly

Why the Giants wouldn't jump at the opportunity to get into a better facility than Tokyo Dome is hard to understand. 

The trend with recent stadiums in Hiroshima and Hokkaido is to be more fan-friendly. You would think Yomiuri would want to get in on that.

At any rate, the new stadium isn't slated to open until 2032 so we still have many glorious days and nights under the roof at Tokyo Dome.

Chiba Lotte Marines starter Roki Sasaki delivers a pitch to an Orix Buffaloes batter on April 30 at Hotto Motto Field Kobe. (©SANKEI)

Showdown of Aces

In a marquee matchup of two of the best pitchers in Japan, Roki Sasaki outpitched Hiroya Miyagi on Tuesday, April 30 to lead the Chiba Lotte Marines to a 1-0 win over the Orix Buffaloes.

Sasaki improved to 3-1 after striking out a season-high 10 batters over seven innings at Hotto Motto Field Kobe. He gave up just four hits with two walks.

"I finally had my first scoreless outing of the season," Sasaki said, according to Kyodo News.

He added, "I located my splitter very well. I'll just try to improve further as the season progresses."

Miyagi (2-3) was just as impressive, striking out 13 batters while giving up one run over eight innings.

 

Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters infielder Kotaro Kiyomiya bats in the ninth inning against the Chiba Lotte Marines at Es Con Field Hokkaido on April 19. (KYODO)

Fighters' Kiyomiya Struggles on Offense

The Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters are sending Kotaro Kiyomiya down to the minor leagues, according to a recent report by Sports Nippon.

In nine games this season, Kiyomiya is batting just .083 with two hits and two RBIs in 24 at-bats.

It's a big setback for the 24-year-old infielder who arrived in NPB back in 2018 with high expectations after he was the first pick of the Fighters in the 2017 draft.

A total of seven NPB teams chose Kiyomiya in the 2017 draft with the Fighters winning the right to sign him through a lottery. In that same year, the Swallows, Eagles and Giants all selected Munetaka Murakami in the second round with Yakult winning the lottery. 

Murakami would go on to be the Central League Triple Crown winner in 2022 and is a two-time CL MVP. 

Kiyomiya showed signs of progress in 2023 with a .244 batting average, 10 homers and 41 RBIs.

With the Fighters doing well this season and desperately hoping to move up in the Pacific League standings after two consecutive seasons in last place, it appears the team is running out of patience with Kiyomiya.

Before turning pro Kiyomiya was known for setting the Japanese High School Baseball record 111 home runs over three seasons.

As of Tuesday, May 7, the Fighters were in second place in the Pacific League standings with a 16-12-1 record, 3½ games behind the front-running Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.

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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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