It’s no surprise at all that this was the best episode of Diamond no Ace we’ve seen for several weeks. Like any ensemble series it’s better when it focuses on its best characters, but more than most the gap between its stronger and weaker characters is a wide one. Give me 22 minutes focused mostly on Eijun and Haruichi and it’s a pretty good bet you’re going to have a winner.
This is the kind of material Daiya excels at – tense, mostly realistic action with a focus on the mental side of the game. Ugai hasn’t gotten a ton of development but he’s kind of an interesting guy, as all the opposing coaches have been – he’s no fool, that’s for sure, even if he’s a bit too old-school in some respects. He’s committed to the idea of walking Miyuki whenever he bats in a key situation, and it’s a sound notion – with the added benefit of firing up Maki that much more. It works once and looks on the verge of working again until Kataoka plays his trump card – he pinch-hits for Tanba with the bases loaded and two outs, giving Haruchin his chance to shine. “Just hit the ball back” – the simple thoughts of a first-year and a natural hitter, and exactly what Kataoka needed to hear to be confident in his “lucky boy”.
As a general rule of thumb any time the character with slitted eyes opens them, it’s a big moment – and you can tell how seriously Haruichi is taking this one. One of the great joys about baseball is that a tiny wisp of a boy like Haruchin can succeed against a monster like Maki, but the truth is he seems a bit overmatched by Maki’s fastball. Ugai seems confident, and for good reason – but one of the trusted maxims of baseball is you when you have a hitter overpowered you never speed up his bat by throwing a breaking ball. Much to Ugai’s dismay Maki throws a curve ahead in the count 1-2 – presumably wanting to make a statement with the strikeout – and Haruichi slaps it over the drawn-in left fielder’s head for a bases-clearing double. Eijun can now enter the game with a 4-1 lead.
There’s no question Haruichi is a special player, and his adorably bashful fist-pump may be my favorite signature move in the series – the only question, really, is whether he’s too good to be in a pinch-hitter’s role. For now, though, it’s Eijun’s turn to shine, and even with a three-run lead there’s a lot of pressure here. This is a battle for redemption, first of all, and he’s also realized that Wakaba and his middle-school pals are somewhere in the stands. And of course, being full of martial spirit as he is Eijun walks the first hitter – but the reason I love him as a character is his “Oh, my God – what have I done! Walking the leadoff hitter is the worst thing I could do!” reaction. Of course it’s true, when your team has just scored and you have a three-run lead it is the worst thing you can do – but Eijun is a player, not a fan, and he actually shouts it out loud. Never an unexpressed thought.
This is a big moment in Eijun’s pitching career, no doubt, especially after a shrewd hit and run and a lucky bloop single complicate matters considerably – and Miyuki points this out with his usual bluntness. But Eijun refuses Miyuki’s attempt for a conference on the mound, and Kataoka sends Haruichi out with a message to break the tension – “make sure Masuko’s hat doesn’t come off or we’ll have trouble concentrating”. You have to think Eijun has what it takes to get through this, and not just plot armor either – no one has hit a ball hard yet and his fighting spirit is his greatest strength (for the moment). The batter is Maki, who’s also out for redemption, and both the game and Kataoka’s confidence in Eijun are riding on what happens next.
Haikyuu!! – 19
I can’t be the only one who thinks of the Grinch every time the camera lingers on Kageyama’s scowling face, can I? The resemblance is uncanny, to the point where I think the mangaka must be a huge Dr. Seuss fan. It’s about time someone (Hinata) pointed out that his face is gonna freeze like that if he’s not careful.
This was pretty much your classic “night before the big game” episode complete with team meetings and kids lying in bed sleepless, consumed with thoughts of the day to come. But Oikawa Tooru’s presence definitely spices things up quite a bit. Namikawa Daisuke is clearly having a lot of fun with this part, from vamping for the TV cameras to trolling his own teammates. He’s an interesting dude, and clearly an interesting player, somebody who plays head games with friend and foe alike and has the game to back it up.
With that in mind, it sort of feels as if Kageyama is playing into Oikawa’s hands – letting this turn into far too much of a personal battle. That comes into evidence in the first few points of the match – on the very first, Oikawa executes a flawless setter dump (in truth, a setter spike) and puckishly warns Karasuno that he’ll be doing it again, so they better not sleep on it. Kageyama then turns around and throws a dismissive lefty flick of his own over the net the first chance he gets, with an identical postscript. It’s easy to understand why Kageyama would be so jacked for this personal challenge, but a one-on-one fight against someone with Oikawa’s combination of skill and experience can’t be good for Karasuno – and if it does turn out well, that would stretch the series’ credibility quite a bit.
No, I rather think this is going to be a team effort – and that might even include the unlikely Yamaguchi-kun, as there’s foreshadowing that his newly-learned jump floater may have an impact before the match is done. And with Oikawa involved it’s surely going to involve Karasuno getting some TV exposure at last, above and beyond Hinata and Nishinoya being called grade-schoolers by the unit director scolding them for being too loud.