To be honest, a lot of the big names aren't here, and those that are (Yokohama, Osaka Touin) do not seem to be front runners to win this year. That means that for the middle-tier teams that make it, the door appears to be open for them to walk through. But who?
Kousei Gakuin (Aomori)See, the thing is with Kousei was that despite reaching the final, in all the games I got to see them play live, they just didn't seem that impressive. You never looked at the team and thought, "Wow, that's team's going to be scary." In fact, their road to the Koushien final seemed rather pedestrian:
- 16-1 win over Senshuudai Tamana (Kumamoto)
- 6-5 win over Tokushima Shougyou (Tokushima)
- 2-1 win over Touyoudai Himeji (Hyogo)
- 5-0 win over Sakushin Gakuin (Tochigi)
Yet, it was Kousei that not only won their super-regional, but the Meiji Jingu tournament (albeit with a little controversy) that allowed Hanamaki Higashi to receive an invite.
Still, their 11-game winning streak was not necessarily fraught with landmines. They had a 7-1 and 7-2 wins against Hachinohe Koudai-ichi and Aomori Yamada in the prefecturals, a 9-8 win over Hanamaki Higashi, and an 11-8 win in extras over Kamimura Gakuen and the 6-5 win over Aikoudai Meiden in the Meiji Jingu tournament.
The problem is, they're all known teams, but none have really been considered top-tier in recent years. They're just quality wins by name only it seems.
You can't deny them though that they managed to win 11 straight regardless, especially after losing ace pitcher Akita. Kanazawa Yuuki (金沢 湧紀) takes over as the ace pitcher. He throws in the high 130's with a slider and curve. It's not as fast as Akita, but he seems to have taken over nicely.
In relief is Jyouma Ryuuhei (城間 竜兵). Not listed or used as a pitcher last year, he wears the #4 jersey. Despite not appearing to have game experience, he can throw in the low 130's and has the obligatory slider.
Offensively, 3 players remain from last summer's team - all played in the starting 9, and interestingly enough, all of them are on the left side of the field. There's your infield in 3B Tamura Tatsuhiro (田村 龍弘) and SS Houjyou Fumiya (北條 史也) with LF Ameku Shouto (天久 翔斗) joining them. Houjyou was the better hitter at Koushien, though Tamura wasn't bad himself while Ameku's penchant for getting hit helped him get on base despite not carrying a good bat.
- Ameku - 2-11, RBI, 2 K, 2 BB, 4 HBP - 0.182/0.471/0.182
- Tamura - 5-19, 2B, 3B, 2 RBI, 2 K, 5 BB - 0.263/0.416/0.417
- Houjyou - 7-19, 3 2B, 8 RBI, 3 K, BB - 0.368/0.400/0.526
Aikoudai Meiden (Aichi)Well, it's hard not to mention the Meiji Jingu runner-ups, however their road included some close games against some lower-level teams. In the super-regionals they had 4-1 wins over Komono and Shigakukan, then survived a late rally by Mie. And though they went on at the Meiji Jingu tournament to defeat both the Tokyo and Kanto representatives in Kanto Dai-ichi and Urawa Gakuin, you could argue that combined they had one quality win the entire fall tournament (Kanto def. Teikyou 2-0).
Leading the squad is ace Hamada Tatsurou (濱田 達郎). He has a fastball that can touch 145 km/h (~90 mph) and compliments that with a slider, splitter and curve.
Offensive, the team is led by 3B Nakano (Yoshinori) (中野 良紀). He has good bat speed, and had a timely double and triple in the 6-5 loss to Kousei Gakuin. Joining him is RF Matsuoka Daisuke (松岡 大介), whose name also seems to be called when a run is involved.
Meiden has had little success at Koushien recently, it'll be interesting to see if this class can turn the tide.
Sakushin Gakuin (Tochigi)Sakushin Gakuin, much like Kousei, didn't have much of a hard road to the Best 4. They did have a win against ace Kitakata Yuujyo, and out-dueled Chiben Gakuen. Still, the fact that they made a run to the finals of the Kanto Super-regionals defeating teams such as Hanasaki Tokuharu and Yokohama give them at least some credibility as a threat to win it all.
Leading the charge once again is ace Ootani Shigehiro (大谷 樹弘). He performed fairly well at Natsu Koushien, but doesn't display the stuff that makes you think "dominant ace". Instead he compliments his 141 kph fastball with a wide variety of pitches (slider, curve, change, split, shuuto) that induce contact instead. He gives up his fair amount of hits, but limits his walks to offset it.
Offensively, there's SS Ishii Kazunari (石井 一成), who put up an impressive 0.44/0.469/0.690 at Natsu Koushien last year. He'll have to do quite a bit better this time around that slash line.
Helping him in the middle of the lineup is Takayama Ryousuke (高山 良介), who saw a PH appearance at Koushien but not much else, yet has been slotted into the 3rd spot in the lineup this fall.
Hanamaki Higashi (Iwate)Yes, Hanamaki Higashi made it to Senbatsu only because of Kousei Gakuin. But I consider them a wild-card in the tournament. They do not have the talent necessarily to be a front-runner. However, whatever Sasaki-kantoku is preaching to his kids there, it works. I know I've stated this to death, but Hanamaki Higashi is like that fly that bugs the crap out of you, but you just can't kill. I don't think it matters who they face, they seem to have a chance against them. In fact, I bet if they had played Sanko last summer, they would have given them the scare of their lives. And so I think they are the ultimate wild card in this tournament.
Returning for Hanamaki Higashi is Ootani Shouhei (大谷 翔平), who actually came in relief in their only game against Teikyou if you don't remember and actually did a pretty good job in his stint. He's a tall (191 cm!), hard-throwing righty who can hit the 150's, but generally settles in the upper 140's to go along with his slider, curve and good forkball.
If you had to point out someone on the offensive side, it would have to be SS Oota Kazumasa (太田 知将). Against Teikyou, he was 2-5 with a 3B. Now, he was 0-8 in the super-regionals, but he might be one to watch at the top of the order once again.
But really, Hanamaki Higashi generally doesn't depend on one or two players on the offensive side. It's a concerted team effort that goes beyond individual effort. They just work hard and never quit, there's just no other way to put it.
Chiben Gakuen (Nara)Chiben Gakuen has always competed with Tenri, but has now finally placed their stamp as the head of the class in Nara. Tenri over the last couple of years have frittered away chance after chance at Koushien with an inability to execute when the time is called. Meanwhile Chiben has shown that ability, albeit with some help from Yokohama this past summer.
The thing is, the Kinki super-regional as a whole seemed down. Chiben Gakuen had wins against Riseisha and against Tenri (twice!), while Tenri defeated an Osaka Touin that sneaked into the field. And yet these two wound up being 1-2 in the entire region.
Taking the hill yet again for this campaign is ace Ooyama Daiki (青山 大紀). He was on the hill against Tsuruoka Higashi and Yokohama, and came in relief when spot starter Ono failed to get past the 3rd inning. He has a fastball in the mid-upper 140's with a two-seam fastball, change, slider and curveball. He's not a Shimabukuro/Kikuchi K-guy, but he still manages to strike out his fair share of batters.
But if Chiben Gakuen is the best chance the Kinki region has... no offense, but good luck.
Kamimura Gakuen (Kagoshima)
The best chance out west lies with Kamimura Gakuen. Denied a chance at Koushien multiple times, they've roared back and trying to stay. Outside of letting Oita come back in the super-regional quarterfinals to make it a 7-6 ballgame, they dominated the fall. And if not for the new tiebreaker rules, they may have usurped Kousei Gakuin at Meiji Jingu.
2nd year Hirayabi Jyuichirou (平藪 樹一郎), a lefty with a fastball that is in the low-mid-130's but has a two-seam fastball, cutter, slider and curve. He'll need them all if he is their starter.
I only say that because they also have SS/P Kakizawa Takehiro (柿澤 貴裕). He only pitched one inning in their opening game loss to Noushiro Shougyou, but gave up no runs on 2 hits, striking out 1. In the fall tournaments he limited Kyushu teams to just a shade over 1 run per 9 before giving up 3 earned in 6 against the summer runner-ups. Kakizawa has an above-average fastball that can at least get to 145 and is reported to have a slider, curve, change, and sinker. Unless he has stamina issues, or they have no better option at the keystone, he should be taking the hill for the team.
Offensively, they turn to two players who saw little experience at Koushien, but have proven their mettle.
First up is OF Koga Iori (古賀 伊織). He had a PH appearance at Koushien versus Noushiro Shougyou and reached on an error by P Hosaka. Now the cleaup batter, he made a bases clearing triple to tie the game in the 8th before they fell in extras against Kousei Gakuin.
The other is the one that replaced him after the PH appearance, Niiro Shinya (新納 真哉). A good eye helps him draw walks, and a time to 1st base of 4 seconds helped him steal 11 bags in the fall tournament.
There may be others in the field, and I'll try to cover players and teams as I look into it further. But on first glance, these teams may be the front-runners to win it all this spring.