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THE HOT CORNER: Swallows skipper finds trouble in 9th

by Jim Allen (May 13, 2010)

If those who look for trouble and find it are fools, what about otherwise rational people who time after time make the same wrong decision?

That's what visiting managers so often do in Japan when the score is tied after 8-1/2 innings. Last week's Hot Corner suggested the save rule was to blame for managers' reluctance to use their best pitchers in the ninth inning of tie games.

Tokyo Yakult Swallows manager Shigeru Takada says he won't use his relief ace, South Korea international Lim Chang Yong, in a tie game on the road. But that reluctance has cost him over and over since 2006--as it did over the weekend.

Last Friday in Nagoya against the Chunichi Dragons, Takada opted for Takehiko Oshimoto in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied 1-1. Oshimoto is a useful reliever but not comparable to Lim.

Oshimoto got into a jam, appeared to pitch out of it, then loaded the bases before Motonobu Tanishige singled in the winning run. Sayonara. Final score: Dragons 2, Swallows 1.

The following night was slightly different. Rookie Masato Nakazawa was working on a one-hitter and took a scoreless tie into the bottom of the ninth.

Dragons manager Hiromitsu Ochiai pulled his starter, Soma Yamauchi, after 112 pitches and eight innings. Ochiai has two setup guys to chose from, lefty Akifumi Takahashi and right-hander Takuya Asao.

Takahashi came in and struck out Norichika Aoki and Jamie D'Antona and then retired pinch-hitter Yasushi Iihara, all on 13 pitches.

Nakazawa went to the mound in the bottom of the ninth and retired the first two batters he faced. On the brink of his first pro shutout, the lefty missed one pitch to right-handed-hitting Kazuhiro Wada, who put it in the seats for a sayonara home run.

One-run games are often decided by the breaks, and in this case, one might argue that the Swallows were victimized by bad luck.

Unfortunately, as pointed out in last week's column, these breaks are not something that just happens now and again. They are the norm. Visiting teams who are tied in the bottom of the ninth usually lose--unless they have a top-quality reliever on the mound.

Since Takada has managed the Swallows, Lim has been his best option in those situations, with the team going 2-2. One loss came in the bottom of the ninth.

With Oshimoto, Takada is 0-4 with three ninth-inning sayonara losses. With lefty Kenichi Matsuoka, the Swallows are 1-3-2, with all three losses in the bottom of the ninth. It's not a pretty picture if you're a Swallows fan and your team is giving away games.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Ask a fan of the Hanshin Tigers, whose team is at the other end of the spectrum.

From 2006-2009, Akinobu Okada and his successor Akinobu Mayumi used a reliever in that crucial situation 30 times and the Tigers went 10-11-9 with only four ninth-inning sayonara losses.

The Tigers have for years had a pair of big right-handed guns in the bullpen, Kyuji Fujikawa and Tomoyuki Kubota. Since 2006, the team is 8-2-2 when Fujikawa pitched the bottom of the ninth in a tie game and neither loss came in the ninth.

"Hanshin has a wealth of quality relievers," Okada, now the manager of the Orix Buffaloes, told The Hot Corner on Wednesday at Jingu Stadium. "Don't even ask about Orix."

Takada said Fujikawa is the key, because of his ability to work more than an inning at a time.

"Lim is different," Takada said.

Indeed, while Fujikawa frequently throws more than an inning, Lim rarely does, having exceeded an inning just three times since 2006.

But Takada refuses to be suckered into the logic that he should try something just because the numbers suggest it might help him win.

Wouldn't he prefer to use the guy who gives him a 50-50 chance of winning as opposed to the others (1-8-3)?

"No. I'll use my closer when I have the lead and sometimes at home when it's tied," he said, looking tired of the topic. "That's that."

A manager should care about the basic odds when he makes a decision, but such does not always appear to be the case.


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