Friday, January 4, 2013

Two Outs

There is something about Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi that seems really familiar. He looks like a fellow who could be our neighbor. A little bit scruffy, but in a regular guy way. I don't really know all that much about his interests; though it's easy enough to imagine him as a craft brewer, or an arborist, or a historian. He seems like the sort to have a vintage motorcycle repair shop, or a rare and unusual bookstore. One could believe that he telecommutes and writes comedy bits. If the hearty odor of ribs drifts over the fence, he and his beloved have a standing invite to our backyard. If the sweet smell of yakitori drifts over the fence, we have an open invitation to their patio. His nickname sounds just like the Johnny Cash song and he thinks it's funny. Our cat is scared of his dog, but there is no real malice between them.

I can imagine an early morning with the sun just filling the sky. He pops out of the house and is talking quietly to his pooch while fumbling with the keys. He looks distracted, but remembers to grab the travel mug and Frisbee off the roof before climbing inside the Subaru. The hound is excited beyond words to be going bye-bye in the car. The adoration makes it challenging to maneuver the coffee between those eager paws to the cup holder. After the dog settles into his spot, the car starts and they pull away. It's pretty early, so our neighbor smiles and waves without giving the horn the usual quick toot. The bike was already locked on top of the car. Maybe they are going for a short ride and run along the Springwater Trail before the temperature climbs. I smile and wave back before finishing up watering the roses and rhododendrons. Of course, if the Shimoyanagi family really lived next door, their yard would look better than our yard. It's not summer though, and he isn't one of our nice neighbors. He plays baseball across the ocean.

Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi stepped to the rubber and delivered another warmup toss. Motohiro Shima popped up from behind the dish, double clutched, threw it back, and blew on his fingers out of habit. It was frigid at the Kleenex Box. In the opening series at home, the Rakuten Golden Eagles had endured gusts strong enough to change the path of pitches, torrential downpours, driving sleet, and gently falling snow that looked like cherry blossoms. The air was calm and relatively warm inside Kyocera Dome. Tsuyoshi stared into the outfield and rubbed up the baseball. His teammates took a brief opportunity for a bit of catch. Beyond the islands of dirt on the infield, there was a wide expanse of green turf that stretched out toward the wall like a plastic prairie with a buzzcut. In a row of advertising above the bleachers, a giant Ichiro stared down at the action with a frosty cold beer. Ichiro deserves a frosty cold beer. 

The Orix ouendan was restless. Tsuyoshi turned toward the plate and delivered another warmup toss. It had been a pretty good game so far. He'd only thrown 42 pitches, but the Buffaloes had touched him up for a run in each of the last two frames. The pitching coach hovered like a hummingbird for a few more moments, said something encouraging, and left for his place by the whiteboard in the dugout. The umpire gently dropped a fresh baseball into the catcher's mitt. Shima looked out at his veteran starter with calm trust and tossed the new pill to the mound. Alone with his thoughts, Tsuyoshi turned again to the big expanse of carpet and nodded to each of his fielders. He said a few words to himself. Everyone was ready. Takahiro Okada took a last swing and stepped into the box. It was time for the fourth inning.

The umpire hollered to start the action. Okada set his spikes, stared out at the mound and tightened his grip on the bat. Shima put down the sign for a shuuto. Shimoyanagi nodded, toed the rubber, paused for a second, then went into his delivery. The ball exited his hand, and began to break hard left in a big hurry. As Okada spun around to avoid getting hit, a dead ball caught him right between the double nickels on his back. The baseball dropped to the dirt and lay still. Shimoyanagi tipped his cap with a sincerely apologetic look. Okada nodded back and straightened his fives. The umpire awarded him first base and he headed down the line toward the pillow. Aarom Baldiris was initially worried for his teammate, but only needed to offer encouragement. Manager Senichi Hoshino expressed his dismay from the Rakuten dugout. The inning was not going well so far. 

In the history of the sport, Senichi Hoshino should rank among the most interesting characters to skipper a club. He can holler and flap his arms with the best in the game, and sometimes his face writes paragraphs without a sound from his mouth. Other times he slaps a chair in the dugout with such force that somebody checks to see that it isn't broken. Once in a while, he quietly senses when the other manager has made a big mistake and slowly licks and smacks his lips just once like a silent cat about to pounce on a meal. He isn't known for being touchy-feely at all, but still gave an iconic bear hug to Tomoaki Kanemoto after the sayonara home run that ended the fourth game of the 2003 Japan Series. Like Stengel and Weaver, he is both traditional and unconventional. He says things that are odd, interesting and old school. Unlike those men, he isn't known for colorful profanity to the press. Furthermore, Hoshino-kantoku was a winning pitcher at the highest level of his profession before ever taking the helm. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe he does his post-game interviews fully clothed too.

Shimoyanagi was going to have to do something right in short order to keep this game from getting to the bullpen early. His manager was not a man of infinite patience. He became familiar with that withering look from the skipper when he came over to the Hanshin Tigers in 2003. To a starter, that face meant the leash was probably about one pitch long. Shima came out with a new baseball and said a few kind words to his battery mate. Shimoyanagi thanked him, turned toward first and tipped his cap to Okada again. The first base coach was busy double checking for injuries and discussing the next play with his base runner, so the nearby umpire acknowledged the hat tip. Taking a short walk up the back of the mound, Shimoyanagi rubbed up the baseball. Shima returned to the plate. The umpire finished his sweeping and retook his position behind the catcher. Aarom Baldiris made his way back to the batter's box. The umpire hollered once more and Shima dropped the sign for a shuuto. Shimoyanagi took a deep breath. It was time to give it another try.

It was in this moment that the baseball gods looked down and smiled upon the veteran southpaw. Sure, it wasn't something big like helping him sustain a streak of at-bats without a strikeout to push him past Ichiro's record of 216 straight appearances, nor was it a run to the postseason, but it would be a small miracle for a worthy fellow who needed one on April 8, 2012. Shimoyanagi toed the slab once more and went into his delivery. Baldiris offered and punched a grounder toward shortstop Toshihito Abe who crossed the bag at second and fired a seed to Jose Fernandez at first. The camera paused briefly on Shimoyanagi. His face flickered the tiniest grin mixed with more obvious signs of relief. Okada and Baldiris jogged back toward the Orix bench. In the visitor's dugout, Hoshino-kantoku was a bit less reserved and glad to see the mess cleaned up. In those brief 90 seconds of the fourth inning, a whole range of emotions had filled the benches and bleachers. Now, it was two pitches into the frame. Shimoyanagi had two outs on the board. Baseball isn't always sublimely pretty, but it can be pretty sublime.

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