Ah, the fine art of the setup episode – it’s a staple of every sports series, and how well they portray the buildup to a big game can be as important as how they portray the game itself. In my view the two standouts in recent vintage in this department are both shows that focus on the other dominant manga sport, soccer – Giant Killing and Ginga e Kickoff. But this years crop of sports anime have some pretty good examples, and Daiya no A delivers a rock-solid entry with this episode.
I think it’s a big advantage for Ace of Diamond that it’s proved itself capable of bucking tradition when it comes to results, despite its old-school pedigree. It’s nice to have a degree of doubt as to how games will turn out, and Yakushi’s introduction has been a big part of that. I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to look at them with a certain amount of disdain – certainly we’re supposed to root against them – but I find them to be a fascinating team both in concept and execution. Yakushi represents an antithesis of what Japanese baseball (and certainly Japanese high school baseball) stands for: they’re free-swingers and free spirits with a swagger, disdaining the bunt and the trappings of decorum in favor of a ragged and aggressive style that’s more 2007 Boston Red Sox than Koushien.
The most dangerous and subversive thing about this team? They actually have fun during the games rather than focus on discipline at all times. That’s largely why I sort of like them in spite of their obvious flaws, and I’m still not quite sure what the perspective of the show itself is on that subject. Their coach is certainly the most glaring example – in many respects he’s s scumbag, especially in the way he manipulates his son. But it’s clear that despite appearances he’s no fool – this is a smart guy who really knows baseball. And loves it, too – he’s a “baseball freak” who played semi-pro ball until he was 40 because he didn’t want to give up the game. But that also cost him his marriage – and what kind of woman must he have been married to if she was willing to walk out and leave her son in Raizou’s hands? Or is it possible that he’s a better father than he appears to be?
The issue of Todoroki-san as a father has already taken Diamond no Ace into some quite dark places, though it dances around the fringes rather than diving in wholeheartedly. This is still a baseball show first, and Seidou is still the team that matters most. And what we’re starting to see here is that one of the ways Eijun is helping Seidou is that he too is a bit of a subversive figure, putting some cracks in the rigid walls of tradition and propriety that a power school like Seidou erects around itself. To be sure he does it far less insidiously than the Todoroki tandem, but he does it nonetheless – “He’s our mood maker!” Haruno-chan gushes, and she’s pretty much right. I think this is the reason Eijun and Raichi each see something in the other that they recognize beyond the “20” on their backs, and why I especially look forward to seeing their duel during this game (and over their next two years, if only the anime were to run that long).
The matter of Seidou’s preparation for this strange and dangerous opponent is no small one. The most important question of course is that of who will be pitch, and Kataoka decides to go with Furuya again – but with the caveat that he’ll use a “pitching relay“. That means Furuya, Eijun and Kawakami for three innings apiece (subject to change on the day of the game, of course). I’m not sold that Furuya’s approach can work against this kind of opponent, but I like the idea that he can go all-out, knowing he only has to give his team three innings, as well as the fact that Miyuki has taught him a slide-step delivery. Ostensibly this is to keep potential base-stealers in-check (they disdain bunts but Yakushi aggressively runs), but the real reason is even more important – it’s another attempt by Miyuki to rein in Furuya’s overhtrowing and keep him within himself.
The X-factor in all this remains Tanba. Kataoka tells the grommets that Tanba isn’t ready and he’s not going to use him in the Yakushi game, but he separately tells Tanba “start warming up in the fifth inning”. It makes sense psychologically, but is Kataoka merely trying to keep Tanba from getting down on himself (and to encourage the other third-years) or does he seriously intend to consider using him? It would be a huge risk given that Tanba’s form is still sub-par (the simulated games are proving that). Meanwhile Yakushi, as Chris predicts, has their own surprises to offer on game day. They insert Raichi into the leadoff spot (get your best hitter as many ABs as possible and assert yourself immediately), but what are their plans for Sanada – the ace pitcher who’s only appeared in the final two innings of their last two games? He’s clearly their best pitcher, relying on his Shuuto (but no Knuckle) to bore in on the hands of right-handed batters. It’s a sure bet he’ll be on the mound for Seidou’s critical at-bats in this game – but which Seidou pitcher will be for Yakushi’s remains a key question.