The coronavirus pandemic took center stage again in the NPB this week. Last week, the Hanshin Tigers were dealing with a cluster of cases within their organization. Captain Kento Itohara was among the players found to have broken team protocol and tested positive.
In response, Tigers President Kenji Ageshio announced that he will resign at the end of the season to take responsibility for the team’s failure to follow protocol.
This coronavirus outbreak was Hanshin’s second such event this year. Three players also tested positive back in March. Ageshio has held his position for less than three years. The team has not yet announced a successor.
This week, the disease also hit the Chiba Lotte Marines. Thirteen members of the team contracted the virus, including eight top-team players, one member of the coaching staff and four staffers. An additional four players who tested negative were removed from the roster for the time being. These players were in close contact with other team members who have since tested positive.
The outbreak comes at an inopportune time for the Marines, who are battling the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks for the Pacific League pennant. When the season ends in one month, these two teams will play each other to decide who will face the Yomiuri Giants in the Japan Series. These three teams will be the only ones in the NPB’s postseason. This is because of the NPB condensing this year’s schedule due to the coronavirus.
That leaves us with nine other teams who sadly won’t get to see any postseason action. It’s even more sad that the pandemic forced the NPB to cancel this year’s NPB All-Star game, because there are players on each of these teams who deserve some recognition. To rectify that, I’ll be presenting each non-playoff team’s most important player over the next three weeks.
This week, we’ll take on teams from the middle of the Central League:
Hanshin Tigers: Yuki Nishi & Robert Suarez, Pitchers
The Tigers will finish in second place in the Central League this year. It’s not the result they had hoped for, but there’s still a lot of good to take out of this season — especially the prowess of their pitchers.
Yuki Nishi is the No. 3 starter in the Central League behind the Giants’ Tomoyuki Sugano and the Dragons’ Yudai Ono. Nishi has posted a 2.18 ERA and a 9-4 record in 17 appearances this season. His strikeout to walk ratio is just below 5-1, and he is an invaluable asset to the Tigers.
The Tigers have also been lucky enough to have Robert Suarez in their bullpen for the end of games. Suarez is the top closer in the Central League with 19 saves so far this season. The 29-year-old Venezuelan is in his first season with Hanshin, and currently holds a 1.51 ERA.
Chunichi Dragons: Yudai Ono, Pitcher
When Yudai Ono steps onto the mound, the Chunichi Dragons bullpen know that they’ll have an easy night. The 26-year-old lefty has pitched a complete game in eight of his sixteen appearances this season. Half of those complete games have been shutouts.
With a 2.07 ERA and a 6.3-1 strikeout to walk ratio, he’s the current favorite to win the NPB’s Sawamura award at the end of this season.
Yokohama DeNA BayStars: Keita Sano, First Baseman
Keita Sano will most likely be the Central League batting champion when the season ends in a month. His .337 batting average is a strong distance ahead of his two closest competitors, teammate Takayuki Kajitani (.318) and Munetaka Murakami of the Swallows (.316).
With 15 home runs, 38 walks, 42 runs and 63 RBI, Sano has been dangerous at the dish this season; he’s also been incredibly clutch when his team needs him. During a late July game against the Hiroshima Carp, the BayStars were down one in the bottom of the ninth. With one out and the bases loaded, Sano stepped to the plate against Hiroshima’s Ryuji Ichioka and blasted a walkoff grand slam.