Pictures: Saito (3rd from left) with his Waseda teammates; Tanaka (at the right, wearing a cap) with his teammates, listening to their coach.
Well, I wanted to say what happened to the Komadai High School baseball team in the end. Last I mentioned, they were going into the semi-finals. They won their semi-final, and were up for the final, for the 3rd year in a row!
The summer Koushien tournament starts with 49 teams -- one from each prefecture of Japan, except for Hokkaido and Tokyo, which are split into two sections and field 2 teams each. It is a single elimination tournament. Each prefecture has its own tournament earlier in the summer, in order to choose the team that will represent the prefecture. It is a very big deal just to make it to the main national tournament, which is held in the Koushien Stadium near Osaka. A friend of mine has fond memories of her high school team getting into the main tournament, in her Senior year. I think they lost in the first round, though.
Each year, of course, two teams from Hokkaido go to the main tournament, but historically they have not done very well. It was well known that Hokkaido is weak in Koushien. No-one expected a Hokkaido team to be able to win, until Komadai came along. Two years ago they went down to Osaka and won the whole tournament. The people of Hokkaido were overjoyed... Hokkaido's time has come!!
Last year, they won the whole thing again. This is a pretty rare occurrence. Wow... go Hokkaido. Up against the strongest high school baseball teams from Osaka, Tokyo, and all over the country.
There were those who could not stand to see Komadai having all this success. Parents of one of the 2nd string players complained that their son had been hit on the head several times by a coach, with a slipper. For a couple of days we all waited as the High School Baseball Federation determined whether they would be allowed to keep their second trophy. They were allowed the win, but celebrations in Hokkaido afterwards were muted. It was a real shame that that parents had to choose the moment of their glory to make the problem known. People all over Hokkaido were robbed of the chance to celebrate Komadai's second consecutive win. According to this Wikipedia article on High School Baseball in Japan (which has a section on Komadai's wins), it was the first time since 1947-8 that a team had won two years in a row.
Komadai then withdrew from this spring's Koushien (a separate tournament), after busy-bodies reported that they had seen former team members drinking and smoking underage in a pub. It was hard being the top team in the country for two years in a row.
Against this background, they made it (with some come-from-behind victories) into the final, for the 3rd consecutive year, in this month's summer tournament. Their opponent in the final: the team from Waseda University's attached high school. This is the top private university in the country, Japan's equivalent to Harvard. Their ace pitcher, Yuki Saito, looks very refined and well-brought-up, and wipes his brow neatly with a handkerchief, to the delight of moms around the country. Apparently his handkerchief has been featured on daytime TV, with people oohing and aahing over how it is folded, etc. His top pitching speed is not far off the top professional pitchers in Japan. In fact, in just 7 more months he will probably become a professional pitcher -- many of the top players are recruited straight out of high school. I still remember seeing the press conferences for high school star Hideki Matsui when he joined the Japanese league, still wearing his black button-down military style high school uniform, looking a bit awkward, quite thin, his face covered in zits. He has sure grown up. Godzilla!
Back to Saito. The final proved to be a battle between two great pitchers. Yes, we have our own ace, too. Masahiro Tanaka -- so calm, but the TV announcer said he looks like he has fire beneath the calm. He led Komadai to their championship last year. He is not from Hokkaido, and who knows why he chose to come here for his high school pitching career. He will also most likely be turning pro in 7 months.
The final was on a Sunday, starting at 1:00, and the pitchers held the score to 0-0 through the first 7 innings. In the 8th inning, each team scored one run, and they went into the 9th. Around 3:00, I got off work downtown, and walked to the main intersection, which was blocked off so that people could watch the game on a big screen. There was a brass band of some kind, and maybe a couple of hundred people were watching the game. Komadai batted at the top of the 9th inning, and we scored no runs. This left open the possibility of a Sayonara run by Waseda in the bottom of the 9th. I left and headed for home, knowing that the game would go into extra innings if Komadai held Waseda.
The streets were pretty deserted, as everyone was home watching the game. I heard a shout go up from an apartment building as I walked past... maybe another run?? No -- I got home and it was still 0-0. The two aces pitched inning after inning, with no more runs scored, until the 15th inning began. I heard the announcers saying that this would be the last inning, and wondered if the two teams would share the championship. It seemed highly unusual, though.
The 15th inning ended, with the score still 1-1; "The game is finished with a tie of 1-1, and there will be a rematch tomorrow!"
The players looked pretty happy after the game (no crying, as there usually is after Koushien games, from both the losing and winning teams). The pitchers looked tense, though ... they would have to play the following game, too. They had pitched 165 balls for Tanaka, and 178 balls for Saito. See article here. There were no "backup pitchers" who could take over the next day. For Saito, the rematch would mean pitching (whole games or nearly whole games) 4 days in a row, and for Tanaka, 3. About 50,000 fans watched the game at Koushien Stadium.
I heard that most of the rest of the country, including the TV announcers, seemed to be rooting for Waseda. They must have tired of always hearing about Komadai, Komadai, from way up there in Hokkaido, and Saito was a fresh face (clean from his handkerchief).
The next day, Monday, the game again started at 1 pm. A lot of the ladies in my office were watching the game online, or listening to it on the radio. Komadai tried hard to come back in the last inning, but they lost 4-3. See article here. In a fitting ending, the very last player to come up to bat was Tanaka, standing in the batter's box facing his rival, Saito.
I am so impressed with Komadai, just for making it to the final, and forcing a replay (the first one in summer Koushien since 1969 -- and at that time, the teams had to play 18 innings before a replay would be declared!). Only one team in history has ever won the summer Koushien tournament 3 times in a row, and that was in 1931-33.