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November 13, 2007

Nippon Prospectus

The Japan Series

by Mike Plugh

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A lot has happened in the NPB over the last month. The high school amateur draft was held-a topic for another day-and the exciting race for the Japan Series crown has now come and gone. We're also already considering the future names and faces from the Japanese leagues who might grace the rosters of your favorite MLB club next season. However, before we get to those topics in future articles, let's talk about the Japan Series. The Chunichi Dragons, second-place finishers in the Central League, took on the defending champion Nippon Ham Fighters, who'd repeated as the Pacific League's top club in 2007. How did they get there, and what went down?

As I wrote in my playoff preview, the Dragons were very good down the stretch and dominated every team other than Yomiuri during the season's last two months. The absence of Kosuke Fukudome was damaging to the Dragons' run at first place, but a well-balanced lineup anchored by Tyrone Woods in the cleanup spot kept the offense moving. The Dragons opened the playoffs in a best-of-three matchup with the light-hitting Hanshin Tigers. The Tigers are regulars in the Central field, but haven't shown anything resembling championship form in recent years. Chunichi sent ace Kenshin Kawakami, a potential 2008 free agent, to the mound to start Game One, and he set up a short series by going seven strong innings of two-hit, no-walk, nine-strikeout baseball. Chunichi took the contest easily, 7-0. In my playoff preview, I'd noted that the key pitcher for Chunichi was Kawakami, and he lived up to the challenge. The key player I identified was Masahiko Morino, and he was the offense for Chunichi in Game One, going 3-for-4 with two runs and four RBI, three of which came on a game-breaking three-run homer in the sixth inning. The series was as good as over in the first inning of Game Two, when 23-year-old Hanshin starter Keiji Uezono gave up five runs, essentially handing the Dragons a berth in the League Championship series against Yomiuri.

In the opener against Central League regular season champion Yomiuri, the Dragons managed to piece together a well-pitched game, using six different hurlers. Takashi Ogasawara got the start and went five strong frames, and Hitoki Iwase, a highly prized 2007 free agent on MLB's radar, closed it out by striking out three over 1 2/3 innings. Kawakami didn't bring his best stuff to Game Two of the series, but fortunately for the Dragons neither did anyone on the Giants' staff. The Dragons won an important second game, and looked to sweep Yomiuri by turning to promising third-year pitcher Kenichi Nakata. The 25-year-old Dragons' righty rose to the challenge against their bitter rivals, striking out 11 over 7 2/3 innings. The Giants' pitching had overachieved and sometimes dominated during the regular season, but it couldn't earn a single win and looked fairly bad in the short-lived series.

So Chunichi earned a berth in the Japan Series, even without Fukudome, where they eagerly awaited the challenge of facing all-world talent Yu Darvish and the Fighters. The Fighters enjoyed a bye in the first round of the Pacific League playoffs, then managed to do away with Bobby Valentine's Chiba Lotte Marines in a dramatic five-game series which started off with Darvish taking Game One with a dominating complete game. It concluded much the same way, as Darvish took the mound in the decisive Game Five on short rest, and provided his team with the quality start it needed to get back to the Japan Series. He didn't bring his best stuff to the park, but 6 2/3 innings of one-run baseball was all the Fighters needed to earn the opportunity to defend their title against Chunichi.

Having reached the Japan Series first thanks to quirky Japanese scheduling, the Fighters enjoyed nine days off, allowing Darvish to take the mound again at full strength. The Dragons rested for seven days and could respond with their ace, Kawakami. Game One saw Kawakami come out wild-he walked the leadoff batter to open the Japan Series, giving manager Trey Hillman the honor of being the first manager to employ the sacrifice bunt in this year's championship set. Kawakami responded to the free out by walking the number-three batter, setting up an intriguing matchup with Fernando Seguignol, who had starred in the 2006 Japan Series. Seguinol delivered a moon shot home run to give Nippon Ham a quick three-run lead. Darvish was at his best, striking out 13 in another complete game, so the Fighters looked poised to run away with the title again after getting a quick 1-0 lead in the series.

Perhaps much to Nippon Ham's surprise, the Dragons mounted a ferocious offensive attack in the next three games, exploding for 8-1 and 9-1 routs, and then a tighter 4-2 win. After delivering the lone run against Darvish in Game One, Morino was a constant presence in the following three contests, and delivered a single, double, home run, and five walks in 13 plate appearances to set the table for Tyrone Woods and former Dodger Norihiro Nakamura.

In another elimination showdown, Nippon Ham once again turned to Yu Darvish to recapture the magic of 2006 and the recent League Championship Series, hoping to keep alive their bid for a second consecutive title. Darvish, working on short rest again, hurled a gem. In eight innings he allowed only five hits and a pair of walks while striking out 11, and he yielded only a single run on a sac fly in the second inning.

However, his quest for a personal 4-0 postseason run and a heroic rescue of his club's fortunes was thwarted by the single greatest pitching performance in Japan Series history. The Dragons sent out 29-year-old Daisuke Yamai to the mound; he had bounced between the big leagues and the minors for most of his career, doing little to distinguish himself. At first glance, it appeared as though Yamai was being thrown to the lions in drawing a matchup with Darvish, but instead, something remarkable happened. The virtually anonymous Yamai retired the first 24 batters of the contest, finishing the eighth inning with a perfect game on the line. With the bottom of the Nippon Ham lineup coming up in the ninth-including Darvish, who would have yielded to a pinch-hitter-manager Hiromitsu Ochiai pulled Yamai and turned to Hitoki Iwase to close things out.

Ochiai was one of the greatest players in the history of Japanese professional baseball, and he's an interesting character to boot. His facial expression never changes in the dugout, fixed in an almost drug-induced half grin. Ochiai was an unconventional player in his day, forgoing the serious, regimented traditional approach to the sport in favor of a lighter and more carefree day-to-day existence. Bringing in his ace closer in spite of the potential Don Larsen moment for Yamai is not the least out of character for the manager. It worked, insofar as the perfect game was completed by Iwase, and Chunichi claimed their first Japan Series title since 1954. Norihiro Nakamura was named Japan Series MVP, and the Fighters went home disappointed.

That disappointment will be short-lived, at least for Darvish, as he took home the Sawamura Award as a reward for being the league's best pitcher. The Fighters also managed to draw the draft rights for high school phenom Sho Nakata, thanks in part to a little magic provided by outgoing manager Trey Hillman. In the meantime, Chunichi won the right to go on to the Konami Asia Cup to defend Japan's title. Darvish was the big star of the 2006 Konami Cup, and Kawakami will seek to repeat his dominance.

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Mike Plugh is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He was the author of Matsuzaka Watch, but he's now blogging at Baseball Japan. You can reach Mike by clicking here.

Related Content:  The Who,  Nippon Professional Baseball,  Ham

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