Review by David Cirone
The first practice game begins, giving the Nikogaku team a chance to show the results of all their hard work. The boys still lament Shinjo’s (Yuu Shirota) absence, and their excitement to get started makes them a bit too hyped up to control their tempers. They fight among themselves, and come dangerously close to showing the opposing team their former violent ways. Kawato’s (Ryuta Sato) positivity keeps them in line, even though he’s fumbling his way through his first official coaching game by giving obvious signals from the sidelines.
Aniya’s (Hayato Ichihara) fastball proves deadly to the visiting team, but he overdoes it and Kawato has to rotate pitchers mid-game, democratically starting in alphabetical order. Aniya’s got a bad attitude anyway, keeping his distance from the team and trying to handle every play by himself. When his teammates challenge him, he reveals that he made a secret deal with the school’s principal to dissolve the team if they can’t win this first practice game.
The coach from the visiting school is a real hard-ass, and he loudly berates his players for losing ground to the rusty and reckless Nikogaku team. When the visiting pitcher injures himself while fielding a play, the coach shouts at him to get back in the action. Kawato steps in to defend the injured player, and the coach mocks Kawato and his team, bluntly stating that ruffians like them don’t deserve to dream of Koshien.
That’s all it takes to set Kawato off, and he flattens the coach with a hard punch to the face. Threatened with cancellation of the game, he begs forgiveness and is saved by the opposing team’s support. Turns out they’ve been paying attention to Kawato’s exemplary support of his team, and they refuse to forfeit the game to teach their coach a lesson.
The game might not finish after all when catcher Wakana (Sousuke Takaoka) reveals his hand has been hurt from Aniya’s relentless fastballs. With only 9 players on the field, the Nikogaku team has no one to substitute, but Shinjo enters the field at the last minute, suited up and ready to play.
WHAT TOOK HIM SO LONG?
God bless Shinjo’s patience — he stares at that jersey for 8 straight innings. When he walks in through the crowd of students to take his place on the field, it’s not really a surprise, but the moment is perfectly paced for suspense and emotion. The friendly teasing from his teammates is genuine, and it’s the only way these young men can show their forgiveness without becoming too tender. (There are girls watching, after all.) The symbolic gesture Shinjo gives Kawato before taking the batter’s box is a great moment of unspoken understanding.
STILL GOT IT
Vice-principal Ikebe (Kazuyuki Asano) dives in front of Rie Mayumi (Kazue Fukiishi) to save her from being hit by a foul ball. When he reveals that he was a star second-base player at the same high school 40 years ago, he’s got a cool gleam in his eye. I think he could give the boys a run for their money even now.
I really enjoyed watching these players come together, and the bond between them feels completely real. There’s so much humor and heart in their portrayals, I really wanted to sit back and watch them banter for the whole game. Kawato has a great line near the end of the episode where he makes it clear that they didn’t come together just to get points for effort or good behavior — these boys are here to win.