There’s a thing in sports called a “trap game”, and for Inashiro, Ugumori was definitely a trap game. Maybe when you’re the defending national runner-up every game is a trap to a certain extent, but with a Seidou rematch awaiting next and an unknown opponent this one was especially rife with danger. Of course, Seidou was facing a trap game too – they were certainly obsessing on the revenge match they assumed was inevitable. But they focused when they needed to, and having Eijun making his first start on the mound certainly helped them do that.
There was a whiff of danger in the air for Inashiro from the first moments the camera turned to this game, especially to those viewers who know something of how sports series are structured – “I have a nagging feeling we’re being set up here, and Inashiro may just lose their second-round game and spoil the party” was how I put it. It just made so much sense for the narrative, and within the narrative too – you could see something was just off with this team, and they were in more peril than they realized.
But considering how inevitable this loss had become, it was still brought off in pretty intense and stunning fashion. It all starts and ends with Mei, because not only is he the ace of this team but with Masa gone, he’s the de facto leader too (and having a hybrid captain-mascot who never sees the field doesn’t change that). Problem is, Mei doesn’t act like a leader. When he was the arrogant punk leading the team to prominence and had Masa to act as a filter, his teammates could look past his act as an irritating sign of his greatness. But there’s no filter now, and all his bullshit is clearly rubbing everyone on the team the wrong way.
The one you really have to feel bad for here is Itsuki-kun, because he’s a first-year who’s been tasked with reigning in a loose-cannon of a pitcher. And all things considered he’s doing a good job, in spite of the fact that Mei undermines his authority every chance he gets. There’s a certain inherent danger generally in having a first-year catcher in seniority-obsessed Japan, but when the sempai is Narumiya it’s exacerbated a hundredfold. First-year or not, the catcher has to be the leader on the field, and certainly of the battery. Itsuki is trying, but Narumiya isn’s giving him an ounce of help.
The key play of the game, as it turns out, is the steal of third-base by an unnamed (AFAIK) Ugumori player in the 8th inning. Mei has just entered in relief, and he’s focused on the hitters in the belief they’ll never touch him so the baserunners are unimportant – which is more or less OK in itself. But Mei doesn’t trust Itsuki to catch his changeup – or any low breaking ball, for that matter. So fearing a wild pitch he shakes Itsuki off twice to throw a fastball, which even Umemiya realizes is the only pitch he has a chance to hit. Mei’s arrogance in believing he can’t hit it is bad, but the real issue is that lack of trust in Itsuki. Not only does it cost Inashiro the game (it ends, fittingly, with Mei in the on-deck circle) but it undermines the entire team’s trust in Itsuki, because by default they look to Mei as a way marker in Masa’s absence.
Kunitomo-kantoku pulls no punches in dealing with Mei after the loss. “It’s my fault we lost,” he begins innocently enough, before lowering the boom, “because I put you in to pitch.” And this is a pretty damn intense moment, because the infuriated Mei gets right up in his coach’s grill (a huge no-no in Japanese schoolboy baseball). The next thing he says may be addressed to Mei, but there can be no one in the audience who doesn’t think of another young pitcher when they hear it – “An ace who pitches only for himself is no ace at all.”
Inashiro, for the moment, lies in tatters – Mei is insensate with rage and self-pity, Itsuki is shattered at his inability to lead Mei and to make a play on the go-ahead runner at the plate, convinced he’s lost the team. It’s a much-needed dose of humility for Inashiro and Mei, but they’re lucky it came in a relatively unimportant tournament. As Kunitomo says, it’s summer – and Koushien – that will tell the tale for both ace and team. Can they grow as a result of this traumatic defeat?
As for Seidou (remember them?) the first thing they need to do is get past the shock of Inashiro losing and depriving them of their revenge, and realize that they’ve actually been given a gift. They can’t afford a letdown, because Ugumori is clearly dangerous and so is Umemiya. Eijun has taken a great leap forward, and appears to have gained even Ochiai-san’s respect with his explanation of how he overcame his fear of pitching inside: it’s still scary to do so, but even scarier to not be able to be the pitcher and man he wants to be because he can’t. But I’d bet the ranch that it’s Furuya who gets the call to start that next game, and the chance to prove he can be more than an ace who pitches only for himself.