Here is big picture what is at stake:
- All 4 schools are looking for their first ever Natsu Koushien title.
- Only one prefecture remaining has won a title (Gunma - Kiryuu Dai-ichi - 1999)
- None of the other prefectures has ever reached the championship game.
- This is the furthest a team from Yamagata has advanced (prior was Best 8 - Nichidai Yamagata - 2006)
- This is the 4th time a team from Iwate has reached the Best 4 (Hanamaki Higashi - 2009, Morioka Chuu, now Morioka Dai-ichi - 1917, 1919)
- This is the 3rd time a team from Miyazaki has reached the Best 4 (Miyazaki Shougyou - 1964, Takanabe - 1965)
- If Maebashi Ikuei wins, it will be the first time a first-time participant would win the Natsu Koushien tournament since
Touin Gakuen (Kanagawa) in 1971. Osaka Touin (Osaka) back in 1991.
Nichidai Yamagata (Yamagata)
- Day 6 - def. Nichidai-san 7-1
- Day 10 - def. Sakushin Gakuin 5-2
- Day 12 - def. Meitoku Gijyuku 4-3
Oh, and top top that off you face off arguably the favorite of all the teams left, find a reply to every shot that they gave you, and give the finishing blow to KO them?
Color me more than impressed.
Part of that success has been ace Shouji Mizuki. The only pitcher to take the hill for Nichidai Yamagata, he has managed to keep batters off balance by pitching to locations to each batter. Not just away or in, but even working high or low to batters. This tendency to pitch in locations can lead to strikeouts (12 in the Sakushin Gakuin game), but walks and the occasional dead ball as well (8 in the Meitoku Gijyuku game). It depends on how good Shouji's control is that game, as well as the patience of the opposition.
The one big question is that Shouji in all likelihood will take the hill again on just 1 day's rest. In the Meitoku Gijyuku game, he too was on a day rest, and was knocked around in the 8th, almost surrendering the lead if not for a decision by Mabuchi-kantoku to try for the squeeze bunt with the bases loaded and 1 out - despite the fact Shouji had walked/hit the bases loaded.
That being the case, what level will he be to start the game? Araki-kantoku has #10 Saitou Ryouta and #11 Satou Kazuma in reserve, but we haven't seen them yet.
If he will take the hill for the duration of the tournament, the offense, who has admittedly answered every call, will be tasked to do more. But the heroes have changed from game to game. Their motto seems to be my motto for baseball strategy, "Next man up!" That is, you don't have to do it yourself, if necessary, get on base, keep the inning going and let the next man continue it.
Of course there are cleanup batters Mineta and Okumura, but they're just a part of it. I mean, you could even say Shouji himself at the bottom of the lineup is a threat. Several times he's gotten a hold of one, but flied out deep. He could find the seats one of these last two games at a rather opportune time...
Maebashi Ikuei (Gunma)
- Day 5 - def. Iwakuni Shougyou 1-0
- Day 9 - def. Shounan 1-0
- Day 11 - def. Yokohama 7-1
- Day 12 - def. Jyousou Gakuin 3x-2 (10 inn.)
But the baseball gods played the cruel trick on Jyousou Gakuin, forcing ace Iida to leave the game after apparently suffering some sort of injury, and allowed Maebashi Ikuei to come back and win the game.
Takahashi Kouna has been the story for Maebashi Ikuei keeping his team in the game until his team could take the lead. The question will be though, how much will be be available over the next 2 days? We know that #10, 2nd year Kitagawa Shougo started the game versus Jyousou Gakuin, went 5 innings, and seemed serviceable enough, but his line (5 IP, 0 ER, 3 H, 0 K, 3 BB) reminds me of another pitcher:
Nasu Ryouto (Nobeoka Gakuin) vs. Seiai - 8 IP, 0 ER, 6 H, K, 2 BB
That's right, I think both Nobeoka Gakuen and Maebashi Ikuei have a similar relief staff profile. Not dominating, not terrible, but seemingly average yet effective on the mound. Normally, I'd immediately raise the question of how effective such a pitcher could be in the late stages. But without a clear favorite and with each team with some visible flaws, it may not be as big of an issue as in other years.
Still, if push came to shove you'd want your ace on the mound and you have to walk the tightrope between saving your ace and actually getting to the next game for the ace to pitch in.
But the biggest question is the offense. Kouna can put up as many 0's as he's like, but if his team can't score, it won't do him any good - unless they keep going 15 innings and the JHBF just gives up. Going back to the Jyousou Gakuin game, they managed a grand total of 6 hits against Iida before he had to leave the game. 2 of those 6 were bloopers.
Ok, Iida is a special case because apparently he knows his fastball is garbage and should use it as little as possible. But still, you could go back to the other games (outside Yokohama because we knew their ace wasn't that good) and see they generally have trouble scoring. I mean, I couldn't even really tell you who to look for in getting hits other than the middle of the order, and even then you could say that players like Itagaki Fumiya or even Takahashi Kouna himself might be key. I just can't tell you because it's been an offense that borders 2011-2012 Mariner levels (and yes, that is a shot at my own team).
But you want a team with fight, they have the intangibles that can work both ways. First-timers to Koushien? Check. Not one, but two 2nd year pitchers? Check. A team that might not know any better? You bet.
It's been a fun ride so far, how far will they go?
Hanamaki Higashi (Iwate)
- Day 6 - def. Hikone Higashi 9-5
- Day 10 - def. Saibi 7-6 (10 inn.)
- Day 12 - def. Naruto 5-4
Last year they had ace Ootani Shouhei who reportedly hit 160 on the gun, and they couldn't even get to Koushien. The year after he graduates, his school not only reaches Koushien, but reaches the Best 4 for the 2nd time in school history defeating one of the top title contenders in Saibi (pulling in your ace number who had never pitched in the prefecturals - though apparently pitched 1 inning in relief against Toukaidai Sagami and thus was given the #1 uniform??!!), then using a fortunate bounce off 1st base to rally to defeat one of the remaining powerhouses at Koushien?
But that is the case and here they are.
Sasaki-kantoku has been the mastermind, somehow putting his team in position game after game. He seemingly knows who top put especially on the mound, at least to start a game. But as he has to go to the bullpen (which he will have to do), he's struggled finding the right combination. Of course, they've won their games despite that, but as demonstrated in the Saibi game, it could make things very uncomfortable.
One person who makes things uncomfortable for their opposition is CF Chiba Shouta. In the Saibi game Jyoukou-kantoku brought in the CF to play where a fielder would be on a sac bunt. It's actually smart - the bringing in the other outfielders too, not as much. But Chiba embodies the grittiness that the team is famous for. In their most recent game, his first AB went 13 pitches before drawing a walk. In fact, he would draw 4 walks and reach base all 5 times he was up. The pitch counts on his 4 walks?
- 13, 8, 8, 10 - for a total of 39 pitches!!
The only problem is that walking him puts up Kishisato Ryousuke and the middle of Hanamaki's lineup. Doesn't mean the rest of the lineup can't produce though, they can and it's different people each time out it seems.
The offense will need to continue to pickup the pitching which is kind of the reverse of what it normally is.
Nobeoka Gakuen (Miyazaki)
- Day 5 - def. Jiyuugaoka 4-2
- Day 11 - def. Seiai 10-0
- Day 12 - def. Toyama Dai-ichi 5x-4 (11 inn.)
There are a lot of questions surrounding this team as a result. You could say the Toyama Dai-ichi game was their statement game, but again it was against a first-timer and it's hard to judge the credit you could give for that win.
The pitching staff raises more questions as well. As mentioned in the Nichidai Yamagata post, Nobeoka Gakuen generally has gone to #10 Nasu Ryouto? (I still don't know his first name), to start games. But he's a pitcher who will generally pitch in he zone, not strikeout a lot of people, not walk anyone, and pitch to contact (until after that overturned double play).
He usually stays in the game until there is a hint of trouble into which Shigemoto-kantoku has put in ace Yokose Takahiro - though he has had mixed results so far.
And more recently, there's #11 Ide Ichirou who they went to in the Toyama game when Nasu went almost the full 9 and then relieved Yokose when he struggled against Toyama Dai-ichi.
Offensively, cleanup batter Iwashige Akihito and followup batter Hamada Shintarou are the lynchpins of the offense that has at times struggled to score runs.
But to be honest, I can't really pan the team as a whole, mostly because there just isn't enough information out there to say that this team can't be a title contender. It may be they're not, but there's just too many questions unanswered.
Plus - they do the best rendition of the new hit ouen-dan song, the OP theme to Ama-chan (see at 3:10), and that's always a good thing.