Seven Days in May

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Updated: October 11, 2016

Shiba Taguchi, Ryukyu Sports News

Naha, OkinawaMay 27, 2024: In its first three seasons in the PEBA, Okinawa has not had a winning season. For much of this year, Shisa Stadium has been at less than half capacity, with fans quietly but firmly expressing their lack of confidence in the Okinawa front office by not attending the games of a team that seemed to have no hope of playing winning baseball. And yet, the Shisa have won, doing far more than barely keeping their record above .500, and in May, the fans have come back, quiet no more. The fans came out for a three-game series with the now second place Evas. Shin Seiki did what they do so often, winning the series against their Rising Sun Division foe two games to one, victories which seem to belong to them by right. The Shisa would need extra innings heroics in the third game of the Evas series just to avoid a sweep. It doesn’t take much for hope to dim when a team has no recent history of winning, and fans wondered how Okinawa could hope to stake a claim to first place in the division if they couldn’t beat the perennial power in Japan?

Following the final game of the Shin Seiki series on Sunday night, the Shisa quickly boarded a plane bound for America’s interior. Okinawa had just begun what is perhaps the most difficult ten game stretch on the 2024 schedule; series against RSD favorite Shin Seiki, Great Lakes leading Crystal Lake, and Desert Hills leading Aurora. An early season minefield that seemed designed to put the Shisa back in their place as a struggling also-ran.

Monday, May 20th (Game 1 of 4 versus Crystal Lake)

The Shisa open their series with the Sandgnats tonight, Crystal lake having shuffled their rotation to give staff ace Manuel ‘Mayor’ Corona (5-2, 2.71 ERA) the start. Taking the mound for Okinawa is number two starter Yoshihisa Sato (4-0, 2.15 ERA), whose previous start against Duluth was cut short after two innings when he left the game complaining of pain in his lower back. Six days later, Sato insists that he’s feeling fine and is cleared to pitch by the medical staff. Corona starts the game in dominant fashion, striking out the first two batters he faces, left fielder Mike Clarke and designated hitter Salvador Rodríguez. Then comes Red Hook. Alex Bothwell jumps on the first pitch he sees and sends it sailing over the right field fence, several rows into the bleachers for a solo home run. It’s his eleventh home run on the year, but his first since May 3rd. And here the scoring summary ends. Corona settles down and goes on to pitch seven more scoreless innings. Sato for his part looks like a world beater, allowing just three base runners over the course of eight innings, striking out six batters and walking one. It’s his best start of the year. Rule 5 man Sleepy Kuhn comes on in the ninth and retires the side, putting this game to bed. Okinawa wins game one of the series 1-0.

Tuesday, May 21st (Game 2 of 4 versus Crystal Lake)

Taking the mound tonight is Crystal Lake’s number two stater, Alfredo Velázquez (2-2, 3.18 ERA). Because the number three and four starters are still too tired, pitching duties fall to Okinawa’s number five starter, Cristo Santiago (4-2, 3.91 ERA). Neither team is able to get a man on base until the bottom of the third, when former Shisa Ricardo Longoria hits a double to lead off the inning, but the Sandgnats can’t bring him home and the next three batters are retired. The game remains scoreless until the bottom of the fifth, when shortstop Juan Hernández hits his first home run on the year, making the score 1-0. Shisa hitters do not get to Velázquez until the top of the seventh, when Okinawa center fielder Cheol-chung O hits a solo shot of his own, mashing one 414 feet and over the center field fence. The score remains deadlocked at one run a piece until the bottom of the ninth when, down to their last strike, the Sandgnats celebrate a walk-off home run conjured by left fielder Jarrod ‘Merlin’ Ricks. This bit of drama evens the series at a game a piece.

Wednesday, May 22nd (Game 3 of 4 versus Crystal Lake)

So far in this series just four runs have been scored, all on solo homers. Crystal Lake’s number three starter, Yogi Robles (4-3. 4.36 ERA), looks to continue to keep the Shisa off the base paths. Shisa number four starter, the surprising Tsuginori Honma (4-2, 2.32 ERA), takes the mound for Okinawa. While Honma’s FIP is the lowest of his career, it’s his sub-.200 BABIP that is the secret of his success, and to a large degree the success of all the Shisa starters who have found that pitching to contact is a safe approach this season. ‘Keep the ball in the yard and let the defense take care of the rest,’ has been their mantra. Okinawa opens the scoring in the top of the third when second baseman Trapper Holmes hits a two-out, three-run home run. Fun fact of this game: Honma retires the side in the bottom of the fourth on three pitches, which lead to a Sandgnat ground out and two fly outs. In the top of the sixth, the Shisa strike again with another two-out, three-run home run, this time courtesy of Cheol-chung O. This last dinger ends Robles’s night. In the bottom of the sixth, catcher Norihide Yamamoto stuns the world by stealing second base on an 0-1 pitch to third baseman Josh Shaffer, whose dribbler back to the mound would later advance Yamamoto to third. Yamamoto then scores on another infield sacrifice to make the score 6-1. In the bottom of the seventh, the dangerous Jarrod Ricks hits his second homer of the series, a solo shot over the center field fence, making the score 6-2. In the top of the ninth, the Shisa string together some hits and push across another run. Third baseman Tsukasa Okada gets thrown out at the plate, however, which limits the damage done. Honma finishes things out in the ninth, retiring the side and notching his third complete game on the season, throwing just 99 pitches. The 7-2 victory gives the Shisa a 2-1 series advantage.

Thursday, May 23rd (Game 4 of 4 versus Crystal Lake)

The final game of the series pits Sandgnats number four man, and the first overall pick in the 2021 draft, Jim ‘Nitro’ MacCowan (4-2, 5.06 ERA) against Okinawa’s number three starter, and first overall pick in the 2010 draft, Bill Lewis (3-3, 2.96 ERA). This game looks to have the makings of antoher pitcher’s duel, and remains scoreless until the top of the sixth inning, when the Shisa score one on a Salvador Rodríguez RBI double. Crystal Lake ties the game in the bottom of the seventh on catcher Jeff Richard’s sacrifice fly, which scores former Shisa Bobby Watson. In the top of the eighth MacCowan takes a seat and the Shisa pummel the Crystal Lake bullpen, breaking the game wide open on five hits, two walks, and a balk, scoring six runs and taking a 7-1 lead. Lewis also does not return in the eighth, nor does the Crystal Lake offense, which goes down in order. It does make an appearance in the bottom of the ninth, as Sandgnat hitters get to Shisa reliever Ismael Hernández, pushing across two runs on three hits before Jorge Jiménez comes in and closes things out. With a 7-3 victory, Okinawa wins the series three games to one and heads back home to face the Borealis in good spirits.

Friday, May 24th (Game 1 of 3 versus Aurora)

There’s a playoff atmosphere in the first game of this weekend series. Shisa Stadium is a near sellout and the crowd is raucous. Okinawa sends its ace, Félix Maese (7-2, 2.38 ERA), The Cyclone, to the mound. Aurora’s starter is Eduardo Romano (5-2, 2.24 ERA). Romano is Aurora’s fourth starter. The team is that stacked. Maese gets into trouble from the jump, giving up a double to Aurora’s lead off man, left fielder River Pope, and walking the next two batters. Big Whiskey is up and the bases are drunk. This is not where Maese wanted to be in the first inning, fighting for his life against the reigning Royal Raker. With the count 2-2, Maese induces a fly out to shallow right where Clarence Carpenter squeezes it. Pope declines to test Carpenter’s left arm and the bases remain loaded for first baseman Pablo Medrano. Medrano raps a line drive into left field, scoring Pope. Maese retires the next two batters and gets out of the inning giving up just one run. Romano finds the going no easier in the home half of the first, giving up singles to Okinawa’s first three batters and allowing one run before settling in and retiring the next three. After the sound and fury of the first, the contest is still even, 1-1. Both pitchers appear to find their groove in the second inning, and it isn’t until the bottom of the third that the Shisa are able to score again, this time on an emphatic Salvador Rodríguez solo home run. In the top of the fifth, the Borealis even things again on a Mike Britt RBI single. Maese loads the bases again in the sixth, and again gets away with just one run scored on a Pope sac fly. With none out and a man on first in the home half of the sixth, Aurora skipper Octávio Ríos brings in reliever Félix Peña to face center fielder O. The Korean hits Peña’s 0-2 offering 435 feet and out for a go ahead two-run homer. In the eighth, Maese gives way to reliever Ismael Hernández, who gets his man, and then José Días, who gets his man, and then Jorge Jiménez, who gets his man. Three relievers and three outs, as skipper Kijuro Yoshida shows off some fancy bullpen management. In the bottom of the eighth, Peña is still on the mound when O comes up again with a man on first. This time O goes to the opposite field, hitting one down the left field line and over the wall for his second two-run homer of the game, and second off Peña, who is done for the night. John Gray comes to the mound next and retires the side. Reliever Shohei Sanu comes on in the ninth for the home team in an effort to put the game away. It’s not a smooth ride as he puts two men on with one out. The potential tying run comes to the plate. Aurora right fielder Paul Carlysle hits a line drive down the line which first baseman Alex Bothwell snatches out the air. Red Hook then steps on the bag and gets an unassisted double play to end the game. The Shisa win this one, 6-3.

Saturday, May 25th (Game 2 of 3 versus Aurora)

The Terror lives up to his billing in game two. Aurora’s number five starter, Edgardo Díaz (6-1, 5.01 ERA) gets the nod in this one. Yoshihisa Sato (5-0, 1.85 ERA), coming off his brilliant start against Crystal Lake, takes the mound for the Shisa. As happened the day before, the Aurora lineup gets after Okinawa’s starter early and this time Big Whiskey comes through with men on with a three-run home run in the first inning to give the Borealis the early lead. In the bottom of the second, back spasms force catcher Ray Tuff to leave the game. He is replaced by Roger MacDrain. In the top of the seventh, Aurora strikes again, tallying three straight hits and one run on Sato before he is replaced by Sanu, who allows one of his inherited runners to score on a sac grounder before getting out of the inning. Okinawa doesn’t score until the bottom of the eighth, when Trapper Holmes leads off with a triple. Tsukasa Okada brings him home with an infield sacrifice, making the score 5-1, but that is the extent of the damage Díaz allows. Adrian ‘Javelin’ Peterson comes on in the ninth, closing out the game for Aurora, who evens the series at a game a piece.

Sunday, May 26th (Game 3 of 3 versus Aurora)

It’s the rubber match of the Aurora series. Thus far Okinawa hasn’t had much success keeping the Borealis hitters in check. The Shisa starter, Cristo Santiago (4-3, 4.63 ERA), has his work cut out for him, because taking the mound for Aurora is the thirty-five million dollar man, Michel ‘Train Arollin’ Provost (7-2, 0.69 ERA), who hasn’t given up a run in his past three starts. It’s Okinawa’s number five starter versus Aurora’s ace. Santiago is able to hold the Borealis scoreless in the first inning, and the Shisa are able to flip the script somewhat, as lead off man Mike Clarke takes an 0-2 fastball deep and over the center field fence for a home run. Santiago gets into trouble in the third inning, loading the bases on three consecutive hits, but induces a Carlysle 4-6-3 double play grounder to get out of the inning, preserving the Shisa’s narrow 1-0 lead. Okinawa’s hitter of the week, Cheol-chung O, adds another solo home run to lead off the fourth, making the score 2-0. Santiago allow three more hits over the course of the next three innings, but keeps Aurora off the board through eight innings pitched. Provost doesn’t last quite as long, and is replaced by John Gray in the eighth. Gray retires the side and Ismael Hernández comes on to try and close things out in the ninth inning, which he does, striking out two and getting the last batter to ground out on a dribbler back to the mound. The Shisa take the third game 2-0 and the series two games to one.

Fifty games into the 2024 season, the Shisa are in first place and on pace for 100+ wins on the year. A difficult ten game stretch sees the Shisa go 6-4. Okinawa not only survives these series but maintains its first place position, two games ahead of Shin Seiki. How significant this run of games turns out to be will not be known until October. There is a lot of baseball yet to be played. The Shisa have another ten games to play before they get a day off, and the rigors of the 2024 schedule could still get to them in Toyama, Palm Springs, or in back in Naha when they face the Badgers. Even with the recent spate of injuries, Toyama remains a balanced and dangerous team, and one imagines that the Wind Dancers, the Shisa’s old Bright Blade Group foe, would love to spoil Okinawa’s recent run of success.