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THE HOT CORNER: Tigers get back on track

by Jim Allen (Jun 16, 2011)

Interleague play has often been a nightmare for Central League teams. This season, the Pacific League has had the Hanshin Tigers losing more than their share of sleep.

If recent results are an indication, however, the Tigers may be awake and ready when league play resumes on June 24.

From 2003 to 2010, no team won more regular season games than the Tigers' 625. Prior to interleague, the Tigers were 11-14, mediocre but not the end of the world. Their first 14 games of interleague, however, resulted in a 4-10 tailspin, putting Hanshin in unfamiliar territory, last place.

Outfielder Matt Murton, who set Japan's single-season hit record with 214 last year, said everything that could go wrong did.

"We had a play the other day," Murton said last week in Chiba. "[Akihito] Fujii was catching. He threw a ball down to third [behind the runner]. I thought it was a great play, that we had a chance. It hits the guy in the head, run scores. These are the kinds of things that are happening to us.

"Everyone's just trying to get the team going. We're in the perfect storm for a lot of that stuff. We've just got to find a way out of it."

What triggered the Tigers' slump?

PL pitching.

Prior to their interleague spring break from the CL, the Tigers had been scoring 3.27 runs per nine innings. Through its first 14 interleague games, Hanshin averaged 1.63 runs per nine innings.

The free fall began on May 18, when Alfredo Figaro and the Orix Buffaloes held Hanshin scoreless in the first of three straight shutout losses at home.

The Tigers also fell victim at Sapporo Dome on May 31 and June 1 in back-to-back blankings at the hands of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

The Tigers' slide wasn't an across-the-board offensive collapse, but it was close.

First baseman Craig Brazell improved against PL pitching after an atrocious start to his season. Tomoaki Kanemoto, the team's interleague designated hitter, also raised his game slightly.

The six other Tigers with the most playing time, however, all struggled through the start of interleague as measured by OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging average), the best indicator of offensive production.

Third baseman Takahiro Arai had a team-high .931 OPS in league play but just .543 in the first 14 interleague games. Shortstop Takashi Toritani went from .782 to .396 and 23-year-old Shunsuke Fujikawa fell from a surprising .751 to a threadbare .394. The combined OPS for both leagues through June 13 was .650.

Although most of the hangup was on offense, Hanshin has also been handing away easy runs when in the field.

The Tigers made five errors and allowed five unearned runs in their first 26 CL games, 18 errors and 12 unearned runs in their first 20 interleague games.

The weirdness reached its nadir on May 26, when Murton lost track of outs. With the Tigers trailing 3-1, the Marines had one out in the eighth with a runner on second. Murton caught a flyball in right, thought it was the third out, chucked the ball into the stands, and handed Chiba Lotte a run.

"It's like, 'Really? What else can happen,'" Murton said.

A week ago Wednesday in Chiba, Murton had a first-inning leadoff homer and his first four-hit game of the season in a 6-3 victory.

"Once we get back to playing ball like that, hopefully our mind set will be a little more relaxed--not so much trying to make everything perfect all the time," Murton said the next day.

"Any time you win baseball games the way you are expected to win, the flow of the game, the way you feel coming to the ballpark, there's a different feel."

Based on how they have played since, the Tigers may have found that winning feeling. Although they blew a lead Sunday in a loss at Seibu Dome, the Tigers managed to score 20 runs over four games and win three of them.

"If you want to get out of a slump, these are the kind of games you want to have," right-hander Jason Standridge said after beating the Marines last Thursday.

"If we're out of the slump, great. If not, we just have to keep on plugging."


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