In today’s anime reality one-cour series are the norm, but sports manga adaptations are a different animal. They’re a throwback in that way – a series like Daiya no A effectively takes two full cours just to exposit the prologue, and is only now getting down to the real story. In contrast with it’s Fall 2013 stablemate Yowamushi Pedal, this series used about 20 fewer chapters (70 vs. 90) to get through 24 episodes. But it didn’t feel more slow-paced because although it was all preamble, there was a lot of ground covered in those 70 chapters – and an unusual amount of detail spent fleshing out the secondary characters that often get lost in the shuffle in sports anime.
Now comes the transition, though – that love-hate part of sports anime where every episode is a cliffhanger and exquisite torture. For the first time we’re in a game that really matters against an opponent strong enough to be a threat, and it looks like we’re going to be here for a while. In the real world when you’re watching a game you care about you sit down for a few hours and get a result, but sports anime don’t work that way. It’s definitely part of their appeal but it can make watching them a frustrating experience. There’s no indication Ace of Diamond is going to approach Oofuri levels of deliberation, but it’s definitely a new phase for the show.
I haven’t really changed the way I feel about this game – I’m still pretty much rooting for Furuya to get knocked out early, and finding it awfully hard to root against Akikawa. Seeing their empty stands as a contrast to Seidou’s packed bleachers, cheer squad and brass band just makes them all the more the underdog – and there’s a natural instinct among sports fans to root for the underdog. That’s one big reason most protagonists in sports anime usually are underdogs, and another thing that makes Diamond no Ace a pretty unusual series. I like the fact that it’s telling a baseball story through an established powerhouse team rather than scrappy misfits, and emphasizing the team team over the nominal main character (who still hasn’t thrown a pitch that really matters).
But all that doesn’t make me like Akikawa less. The notion of a bunch on average kids from a brainiac school, led by an inspirational foreign pitcher who throws with velocity that’s more Aoba Tsukishima than Kitamura Kou, and a likeable and quirky coach who’s refreshingly free of ego and machismo beating a national power is pretty cool. It won’t happen, of course, but at the very least I hope they acquit themselves well (I’m sure they will, and will be back next year) – well enough to knock Furuya out of the game and give Eijun his chance to pitch when it really matters.
The early returns are promising. Ogata-sensei has sent his troops out in the first inning with a simple command – don’t swing. It seems outlandish and counter-intuitive but it makes perfect sense, at least to start the game – his players probably aren’t good enough to hit Furuya’s fastball even if he throws strikes, but no one can catch up to those shoulder-level heaters he dominated the first two rounds with. Worst-case scenario is you make a guy who’s obviously lacking fitness throw a lot of pitches and tire himself out on a miserably hot and humid day (even at 9 AM – yup, that’s Tokyo).
It works well enough that Furuya walks the first two hitters, but then Miyuki shows his worth again by calling for the splitter. The point isn’t to get a strike – yet – but to change Furuya’s mindset and force him to dial back his energy level. You see pro catchers do this often – if a pitcher can’t find the strike zone with their fastball, call for a breaking pitch just to change the tempo. Obviously the Ogata strategy isn’t going to work so perfectly that Furuya gets chased in the first inning, but even if it doesn’t pay immediate dividends it may just take enough out of him so that he doesn’t last long. And there’s sure no way Seidou is getting 10 runs off Yeung, so the days of 5-inning mercy killings are likely done.
There’s some evidence of progress with Eijun, too. After Kataoka walks in on his late-night inside-pitch practice with Chris on the eve of the game, he grabs a helmet and steps into the lefty batters box himself – clearly to test Eijun’s resolve and composure. And judging by the fact that the “shogun” told both Kawakami and Eijun to be ready from the beginning (the first time he’s really acknowledged Eijun at all, apart from actually putting him on the team) Eijun passed that test. It looks as if Haruichi might get his shot too – he’s actually managed to get some respect from Ryousuke (who’s been treating his younger brother like crap, to be honest) in the form of some batting practice, light praise and an order to not just “babysit” Sawamura but be ready to be a factor himself. There’s enough foreshadowing here to make it pretty likely that the two forgotten first-years are finally going to get a chance to make a difference – though it may be a while longer before we actually get to see it.