Diamond no Ace is in many ways the quintessential sports manga/anime. It’s s old-school as it gets – baseball being the ultimate manga sport, lots of GAR and rough-hewn male bonding. But there are extremes here, more so than in most series. The supporting cast is unusually dull and lifeless, and the contrast between the good moments and the bad starker than usual. Perhaps that’s why it’s capable of producing episodes that can be so irritating – three-minute recaps and flashbacks in the middle of cliffhanger moments – and still, in the end, be as compelling as this one was.
If there’s a moral here, maybe it’s that as long as an ep doesn’t focus on the Seidou third-years, it has a chance. The long recap and the gratuitous flashbacks to Mei’s past (to be fair, it was the timing more than the flashbacks themselves that was the issue) were an irritant, but ultimately this was a really exciting episode. Mei himself is a fairly interesting character (this sort of role is about the closest to a sweet spot Kaji Yuuki has), which certainly helps. But it’s the game situation that’s really pumping up the drama.
While one might question Kunitomo-kantoku’s decision to leave Mei in this game (indeed, the focus on the third-year in the bullpen leads me to suspect this game could just go to extra innings) it’s certainly vital to his character arc. Mei’s storyline is all about exercising the demons of his Koushien flameout, and what better way to do that than with another squeeze situation? After Furuya’s dribbler to second advances Miyuki to third with one out, that’s exactly what presents itself – with Eijun coming to bat, this is the perfect squeeze scenario.
The first question was whether Kataoka was going to let Eijun bat, and indeed he does. Given that he seems to be the best bunter on the team that’s not necessarily conclusive that he’ll start the bottom of the ninth (though it’s a given in dramatic terms that he will), but it’s disappointing not to get the chance to see him actually try and hit. He does swing at the first pitch, but only as a feint – and he actually makes contact, almost foiling but instead bolstering Kataoka’s strategy to try and head-fake Inashiro into thinking no squeeze is coming. I wouldn’t have bought it for a minute and frankly, I’m surprised they didn’t use a pitchout on the first pitch. But after Eijun’s foul ball, the gambit seems to have paid off – the suicide is on with the second pitch, and Mei gives Eijun a ball he can bunt.
Again, this is really all about Mei exercising his demons – and his brilliant play on Eijun’s decent bunt to nail Miyuki at the plate should certainly help to do that. Mind you Seidou still has the lead, but this is a bit of a momentum-changer – for once it’s Seidou who wastes a chance to pad their lead. And now the next big question comes – who starts the ninth for Seidou? Kataoka first makes the move I wondered if he should have made in the eighth – he pulls Furuya for defensive purposes. It seems he wanted that one last at-bat from the first-year slugger, and this change seems like the right move for sure (though of course it does eliminate the theoretical possibility that Furuya could return to the mound, though I suspect it was only in Furuya’s egocentric mind that it was ever a possibility).
That Eijun would start the ninth was easy to guess – this is his story after all. But will he finish it? As cliffhangers go, this is a great one – Eijun is on the hill with Koushien on the line, three outs away from glory but facing the best lineup in Tokyo. I love the dynamic here – Eijun’s raw and rough skills and huge heart going up against Inashiro’s ultra-talented and experienced juggernaut, determined to claw back a run and give their ace his redemption. This is terrific drama, what sports anime is all about. Kawakami is out there, warmed up and ready, but it just feels as if it would be an anti-climax for this game to end with him on the mound – I guess we’ll see, but Eijun in this situation is what Daiya no A has been building towards for 60 episodes and I’d have to think it’s not going to get dramatically cut off at the knees.