Because of the two-cour (for now) extension for the Daiya no A anime, we happily don’t have to look at this as the series wrapping up – along with Yowamushi Pedal it will carry the sports anime banner next season (just like old times). But there is a sense of finality to it nonetheless – it’s clear that the story is coming to the end of a significant phase (effectively the prologue) and starting the next. So it was nice to see Azuma Kiyokuni from the very first episode return – and it’s always a good thing to hear the unique Hiyama Nobuyuki in action.
There’s been a bit of a treading water feel to the last few episodes, but while this one too was strictly a setup it moved at a much more snappy pace, and seemed to advance things much more meaningfully than the last few have. Growth is the theme of the moment, be it through the present or the past (we’ll be getting another flashback ep next week, though this one at the same point it is in the manga). Narumiya’s growth as an ace, Sawamura growth as a raw pitcher, Azuma’s waist – it’s all about development right now, and who’s going to be able to withstand the pressure of the moment when the big game finally comes next season.
Azuma’s visit to the team is a perfect framing device for Sawamura’s development over the ten months since the series timeline began. Azuma himself is struggling, not playing due to weight gain (though only the very top Japanese high-schoolers are able to break the first-string in the pros immediately after graduating). And Kataoka spares him no mercy, relentlessly hammering home his former player’s shortcomings (which is probably for the best). Meanwhile all of the pitchers are undergoing last-minute tune-ups before the West Tokyo final, and Eijun has asked the impossible of Miyuki and Chris – he wants to learn a breaking ball in time for the game.
Impossible for most, anyway. Eijun is a bit of a freak – a raw, natural athlete who can pick things up instinctively. This amounts to a real growth moment for him, because he’s correctly analyzed his own repertoire and realized the logical pitch for him to add first would be a cutter – never mind that it’s a type of fastball rather than a breaking pitch. It’s glossed over a bit here by Miyuki, who describes it as basically the same as his “crossfire” delivery against Sensen – a true cutter is a matter of grip more than delivery. But for a pitcher who lives on the inside corner anyway, thriving by jamming right-handed batters, a cutter makes perfect sense. And it says a lot for Eijun that he’s matured enough to understand that – perhaps this means Miyuki will start treating him with a bit of respect (though I wouldn’t hold my breath).
It’s when Azuma stands in against Eijun to test out the prototype that Eijun really gains confidence (though he plunks Azuma in his well-protected – and not by the guards Kataoka forced him to wear – ribcage with the first one). “Chubby-senpai” has good associations for Eijun, for obvious reasons, and he later tells Miyuki and Chris that Eijun is a “totally different kid” than the one he faced ten months earlier. The fact is, of course, that in terms of sheer improvement Eijun has clearly come the farthest of the Seidou pitchers, and it’s not close (though Tanba has good excuses, being a senior who’s been injured).
Therein lies the big question – what will Kataoka decide to do with his pitchers in the final? It’s the eve of the game and he still hasn’t told them, apparently, which seems odd. Eijun is mentally resilient and will do whatever, Tanba surely expects to start, Furuya is desperate to pitch ASAP and then there’s Nori – he’s the one who seems on the edge to me. His confidence has always seemed shaky and his performances haven’t been stellar – he could be the odd man out, with Eijun being the one to close the game. The other big question is the Kominato brothers and second base – though Ryousuke seems fine (better than fine) in practice, I’m convinced that Chekov’s ankle has been introduced here. If I were Haruchi, I’d keep that glove oiled.