During the course of a 13-run, 21-hit blowout loss, there is bound to be at least one play that leaves you shaking your head, asking the rhetorical question, "Did that just happen?"
Well, that happened to me on Thursday evening at Jingu Stadium as the Yakult Swallows were absolutely owned by Yokohama veteran Daisuke Miura.
In a 140-pitch complete-game masterpiece, Miura, a 35-year-old right-hander with the best hair in the league, dealt the Swallows a 13-2 loss in their own nest as his BayStars out-hit their hapless opponents 21-6.
The play that sticks out for me in this game occurred in the bottom of the fifth inning with two out and the Swallows already down 7-0. But on an otherwise forgettable night for Yakult, this particular play provided a rare positive.
Yakult catcher Ryoji Aikawa was standing on first base after drawing the only free pass Miura would issue all night. With two out, pinch-hitter Shinichi Takeuchi got under a pitch and skied a high pop fly to shallow left field. BayStars outfielder Seiichi Uchikawa and shortstop Takehiro Ishikawa converged at the anticipated point of splashdown, with Ishikawa eventually calling for the ball as he got into position to make the catch.
However, the ball was so high that he had trouble judging it as he backpedaled, turning and twisting as he tried to adjust to the flight of the ball. He ended up dropping it and was charged with an error on the play.
A two-out, semi-routine pop fly during a blowout loss is usually a ticket to trot for most major-league baserunners--at least it has been in the hundreds of games I have witnessed.
But that's not how Aikawa saw it. He didn't care that his team was down by a touchdown; he didn't care that he was one of the club's veterans; it didn't matter that he played the most physically taxing position on the team. There were two out and he was running on the crack of the bat.
As Ishikawa and Co., scrambled to come up with the ball, the hard-charging Aikawa motored around second, then third and busted for home, beating the throw to get his boys on the scoreboard in what was turning out to be a very humbling night at Jingu for the home team.
Now, I'm not saying that hustle like that is unheard of in MLB, but given the circumstances there are very few catchers--or players in general--who would have scored in that situation, or even attempted to.
Aikawa is a consummate professional. He calls a great game behind the plate and controls the opposition's running game. He is a big reason the Swallows' pitching staff got off to such a good start this season. And, finally, he is a team leader and he knows it.
While it seems bizarre that a player should be singled out and praised for simply doing his job, for hustling, being aggressive on the basepaths, unfortunately nonchalance seems to be part of the modern game.
As I said before, there are plenty of examples of MLB players making things happen on the basepaths, too. I wouldn't bet against Pete Rose scoring on that play and earlier this season at Yankee Stadium, Mark Teixeira scored the winning run from first base in the bottom of the ninth when Mets second-baseman Luis Castillo dropped a routine two-out pop fly. But in that case, the game was on the line.
Aikawa's reward on Thursday was minor--a face-saving run that really mattered little in an eventual blowout loss. Still, it's nice to see that there are guys around who play the game right, and who take pride when they put on the uniform.