There’s a sort of watershed feel to this episode of Diamond no Ace for me. All of the pieces (barring unforeseen circumstances) for the first major component of the story are in place – the varsity team has been selected, the training camp is over, and now it’s more or less a question of seeing what everyone is made of and the long march towards inevitably coming up short in the first quest for Koshien (let’s be realistic – the hero can’t succeed as a first-year or it wouldn’t be a sports manga).
With that in mind, it seems as if the way Daiya no A handles this superficially meaningless game against Kiryo (from Osaka, runner-up at the last Koshien apparently) might tell us a lot about how the series is going to handle game action in general. We had Sawamura’s debutante ball earlier, but that was really about being a character drama about Chris more than the game itself. Will it be glacial and obsessive about every bit of minutiae, like Oofuri, or fly through the games like a highlight film? Or something measured and moderate, like Major? So far I think it’s too early to tell, but my guess is it’s the third option – we got about 5 innings here, though that was with the secondary character and rival starting, and the MC (impatiently) waiting in the wings.
I can’t say exactly why, but I didn’t find the drama quite as effective as I have most of the recent episodes. Is it because Furuya is a less compelling focus character than Eijun or Hariuchi (or Chris)? I don’t have any issues with Furuya as far as I can tell – he’s interesting enough, and while a bit of a cold fish that’s an essential component of his personality, and he’s shown enough cracks in the facade to come off as human. It’s hard to put my finger on why, especially, but things just felt a little off-balance this week – the drama was a bit forced, some of the reactions a bit hackneyed. I don’t have a problem with the concept itself, but the execution wan’t quite where it has been.
That said, this was another interesting look at the mindset of youth baseball in Japan, and how it differs from America. I think Kataoka’s basic concept here is to break Furuya down and rebuild him from scratch, and it seems Miyuki is fully on-board with this. Without a doubt someone like Furuya – who has an exaggerated view of his own ability and a lack of experience on the diamond – is only going to realize he’s not all he thinks he is when it’s pounded into him on the field. But for an American youth coach to have a pitcher who hasn’t thrown in two weeks step onto the mound – exhausted at that – and say he’s going to throw five innings, pitch count be damned, would be highly controversial to say the least. Pitch counts are far less important in Japan than in the U.S., where they’ve become an object of obsession. I’m not sure who’s right – pitchers young and old still get injured in both countries – but it’s an interesting contrast.
Predictably, Furuya gets his lunch handed to him immediately by the powerful Kiryo squad. Their coach immediately catches onto the fact that Kataoka is using his rookies in a game against a team from outside the region so as to hide them from local competition that stands in the way on the path to Koshien – it seems likely the opponents for the double-header the next day in which Tanba and Kawakami (also notable is that an American HS coach would likely never allow his starting pitchers to throw two games in one day) will be pitching are local opponents. Furuya is supposed to get killed here – that’s the point – but to leave a first-year on the mound for this kind of drubbing is tough love, indeed. Furuya seems tough enough to survive it – many wouldn’t be. The game demonstrates a pretty elemental rule of baseball – if you lay off the high fastball, the pitcher is going to be in trouble, especially a one-dimensional power pitcher like Furuya.
I confess I’m really more interested in seeing how Eijun fares in his stint on the mound. In theory his stuff should work better against a team like this, because he’s not going to walk so many hitters and the nature of his movement makes him harder to hit even if you know he doesn’t throw a true breaking pitch. But of course he’s going to be facing the same overwhelming body lethargy that Furuya was as a result of the training camp (even the third-years are feeling it) and he too is being sent out with the expectation that he’ll fail. The true test, it seems, is whether these wunderkind hurlers can survive mentally when being beaten up on the mound – and I think we’ve seen enough from Eijun already to know he’s not beaten down so easily as that. This game isn’t about winning or losing, but making an impression, and like it or not Eijun and Furuya are already in direct competition against each other. There are only so many innings for one pitching staff, especially for first-year players. The lessons Kataoka takes away from this game could prove crucial in how much he decides to trust his fate to the grommets, and to which one.