I must confess that I’m liking Todoroki Raizou more and more as Yakushi’s appearance in Ace of Diamond plays out. Part of it is the fact that his admittedly dysfunctional relationship with Raichi is increasingly looking to be less abusive than it appeared, and more grounded on something like actual affection. Mostly it’s the refreshing way to speaks to his players and approaches the game, both so different from the orthodox in Japan. When Ota laid down a bunt (more on that later) his reaction reminded me very much of Hanashima from Ginga e Kickoff, and one very specific moment from that wonderful series. This is a guy who both knows and loves baseball, and clearly wants the kids on his team to feel the same way (and for the same reasons).
The fact is, though, that right now he’s losing the strategic war with Kataoka-sensei, though there are obviously factors here that we haven’t been made aware of. Chris-sempai asks the obvious question when he sees Sanada pitch – “Why doesn’t someone this good pitch from the beginning?” Sanada does indeed appear to be formidable – a fastball that “at least 140 KM” according to Miyuki, plus a devastating shuuto and cutter. That’s an especially deadly combination because those two pitches break in completely opposite directions, making it hard for hitters from either side of the plate to cheat.
The fact is that right now, Raizou’s decision to hold Sanada out until he was already trailing 5-1 looks as if it could cost his team the game – no matter how good Sanada pitches it won’t matter if they can’t make up that difference. Again, though, there’s obviously a reason for it and we’ll presumably be let in on the secret soon enough. For the moment Yakushi remains in real trouble because they haven’t been able to generate anything at all against Eijun. As he was against Akikawa Eijun has been basically unhittable – not even allowing a baserunner until the #8-hole hitter gets lucky on a bloop single to right-center.
Right now Eijun looks like a very good pitcher – not just under the circumstances, but period. He’s working quickly, forcing the hitters to play at his pace and keeping his defense sharp. He’s commanding both sides of the plate and throwing all of his pitches without fear. So that bloop single is a key moment, coming as it does with Raichi in-the-hole. The #9 hitter, Ota, takes it on himself to bunt – that’s the deal with Raizou, who won’t order guys to do so because it’s “no fun” but won’t argue if they choose to do so themselves. Normally sacrificing down 5-1 in the 5th inning would be a dumb move, but a double-play would be a disaster and Ota is facing a pitcher who’s doing more jamming than a strawberry farm. It’s arguably the right move, and it gets Raizou-san right where it counts.
Now, of course, the ball is in Kataoka’s court. Tanba is in the bullpen but he’s clearly not coming in next, if at all – it’s a question of whether to keep to the strict plan of one turn through the order per pitcher, or leave Eijun in to face Raichi. No one has squared up the ball against him yet, and he has the lefty-lefty advantage. I suspect Kataoka is going to let Eijun pitch to Raichi, but there’s a third option too of course – you could intentionally walk Raichi since first base is open. That’s a danger with the bunt there, though I suppose walking Raichi with a 4-run lead would be a dodgy call at best.
It’s these sorts of decisions that make baseball a fascinating game, especially in the context that you have to figure Yakushi is going to make a charge in this game for dramatic purposes, whichever pitcher (I’m guessing Kawakami or Tanba) they do it against. For example, it would be fascinating if Kataoka left Eijun in for one more turn – or at least a few more batters – and then Kawakami did his job too, only to have Tanba come in to finish and be lit up. That would really put Kataoka on the spot, because his only choices (presuming he didn’t stash Eijun or Kawakami at another position) would be to stick with an ineffective Tanba or turn the game back over the Furuya, the first-year who already threw 2+ innings and then had two hours to tighten up – and in the process maybe destroy Tanba’s fragile confidence…