My worst fears weren’t realized – despite a sort of trollish preview, Diamond no Ace did indeed resolve the agonizing cliffhanger it dumped on our doorstep last week. I guess they figured after 80-odd episode they’d tortured us enough – and they were certainly right. And even if much of the episode did focus on the surprisingly compelling Inashiro vs. Ugumori game, there’s no disguising what the headline was here.
The funniest part of that long-awaited pitch to me was the reaction of the Nanamori coach and players – “Why is everybody getting so worked up over one strike?” If only they knew… That strike meant a hell of a lot to Eijun and pretty much everyone connected to Seidou knew it. Giant’s reaction was a perfect illustration of why pitchers who can command both sides of the plate are so effective – when the hitter is sitting on an outside pitch, one on the inside corner feels like it’s almost going to hit him despite being a strike. There are very few pitchers with the pinpoint command needed to live on the inside corner, but if one can use it when needed, it makes the outside pitch infinitely more effective.
It seems as if the battle is finally joined, for the first time in the series. As Miyuki told Eijun after the game, at long last he can now fight for the ace role. I think he has a long way to go yet, but a shutout – even an abbreviated five inning one – against a pretty strong opponent is a very solid start. Obviously the most interesting play was Furuya using his cannon arm to freeze the runner at third after Giant’s lazy fly ball, but it didn’t seem as if Eijun got into too much trouble after that. And the Seidou offense seems to be legit at last. It can’t be said Furuya did anything to rehabilitate his image as a teammate though – I heard no words of congratulation from him – but at least he seems to have kept his head in the game.
Over at the Inashiro game, meanwhile, things are progressing in very interesting fashion. Inashiro still leads, but they keep wasting scoring opportunities (as they did against Seidou) which, as we know, builds up a lot of pressure on a team. Ugumori’s ace Umemiya-kun (still feels wrong to hear Gorou’s voice coming out of that character) does just enough to frustrate them, over and over, and reveals he’s a man of surprises. He has a second “power” curve to compliment the Uncle Charlie that’s been keeping Inashiro off-balance. He’s a helluva baserunner and a pretty good hitter. And he has a real mean streak, too – as witness the way he calls out Itsuki after Umemiya is wrongly called out on a phantom tag at home plate. Clearly Umemiya is getting into the first-year catcher’s head – and both of them know it.
There’s another wrinkle with Ugumori – a wheelchair-bound manager, Nao Matsubara (Suzumura Kenichi) who seems to be their inspirational leader. There are accumulating reasons to believe my hunch about this game was right. Ugumori is getting an awful lot of buildup for a sacrificial lamb, and to a rival and not to Seidou at that. Inashiro is obviously a little cocky and complacent, which is generally death in sports anime. And there’s the simple fact that if Inashiro is indeed the fated rival team-wise, it doesn’t make much sense to use up a matchup with them in a relatively minor tournament like the Fall Invitational. Inashiro may well win this game, but I’d place the odds as better than even right now that they lose.