With the regular season finally coming to an end, it’s time to turn our attention to the first round of the NPB postseason. This is the first year in which both Pacific and Central Leagues will be participating in the three-game opening round format, pitting the second- and third-place clubs against one another for the opportunity to meet the first-place club in their league’s championship series. Best of three is certainly less than ideal, and would seem to devalue the regular season, but it is what it is. A typical cast of characters has emerged in the playoff picture, and the final standings for 2007 demonstrate that the traditional powers have again dominated the underdogs, claiming the six playoff berths.
Team Record Pct RS RA Giants* 80-63-1 .559 692 596 Dragons* 78-64-2 .549 623 556 Tigers* 74-66-4 .529 518 561 BayStars 71-71-1 .500 566 619 Carp 60-82-2 .423 557 673 Swallows 59-84-0 .413 592 620 *: Playoff team
In the Central we see that the powerful Yomiuri Giants have outpaced the competition thanks to some wise offseason spending and the emergence of several good young arms. The Giants featured three of the top six batters in the Central, of which Michihiro Ogasawara and Yoshitomo Tani were free agent acquisitions. Six of the top sixteen leaders in total bases were in Yomiuri’s lineup, demonstrating the type of offensive dominance the team enjoys nightly. Further, three of the top five pitchers on the ERA leader board are in the starting rotation for “Kyojin,” making it easy to understand why they are sitting at home waiting for the winner of the Chunichi/Hanshin series to be decided.
That brings us to the matchup between the Chunichi Dragons and the Hanshin Tigers. The Dragons were able to hold of Hanshin in the final standings despite the season-sending elbow injury suffered by star outfielder Kosuke Fukudome. The Tigers made things interesting with a ten-game winning streak which spanned the end of August and the start of September, but gave back their advantage by losing eleven of their last fourteen games to end the year. Hanshin owns the season series with Chunichi, if only by the slimmest of margins-the Tigers outscored the Dragons 88-83 on their way to a 12-11-1 record in head-to-head play. Most of their success came in the first half of the season, however, and it doesn’t look very good for the postseason matchup that Hanshin only won three of their last ten games against the powerful Dragons.
The Dragons, on the other hand, were very good down the stretch and dominated every team other than Yomiuri during the last two months. The absence of 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 cranking out runs. Fukudome’s rehab work went faster than predicted in the United States, and he has returned to Japan to support his teammates for their run at the Japan Series. He won’t be in uniform anytime soon, but his presence could prove to be a morale boost that helps to generate some energy from the bench. Kenshin Kawakami will get the call in Game One, and he’s the best pitcher in this short series. The Dragons have to be the odds-on favorites to take on Yomiuri in the Central League’s championship series.
Chunichi: Masahiko Morino
Morino now occupies the three-spot in the lineup in front of Woods. His ability to get on base and give the club’s powerful cleanup man long looks at opposing pitchers will go a long way towards guaranteeing the Dragons’ ability to put runs up on the scoreboard.
Hanshin: Tomoaki Kanemoto
This might surprise some of you; Norihito Akahoshi may play a bigger role in the offense because of his legs and ability to put pressure on a defense, given the Japanese tendency to play “chicken scratch” baseball with big things at stake. Nevertheless, Kanemoto, a 39-year-old slugger, is still the big man for Hanshin. If he performs like the Hall of Famer he is, the Tigers could pull off a shocker.
Chunichi: Kenshin Kawakami
A win in Game One would break Hanshin’s back right away. Kawakami is a big game pitcher who is expected to win in these kind of pressure situations.
Hanshin: Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi
The Tigers’ rotation relies almost entirely on smoke and mirrors. One of the best bullpens in the sport gives them a chance to win games in which they head to the late innings with a lead, but Shimoyanagi will have to find a way to hold off the Dragons in order to help his bullpen steal Game One from Kawakami and company.
Team Record Pct RS RA Fighters* 79-60-5 .568 526 489 Marines* 76-61-7 .555 629 525 Hawks* 73-65-5 .529 573 502 Golden Eagles 67-75-2 .472 575 676 Lions 66-76-2 .465 564 585 Buffaloes 62-77-5 .446 536 585
In the Pacific, defending Japan Series champion Nippon Ham turned on the after-burners and pulled off another Pacific crown. Yu Darvish is always the man who deserves the most attention in Hokkaido, but his team found a million ways to win this season, that despite a good deal of uncertainty in the lineup after the departure of 2006 Pacific League MVP Michihiro Ogasawara to Yomiuri and the retirement of the colorful Shinjo. Atsunori Inaba stepped into Ogasawara’s shoes to anchor the offense, and turned in his best season to date. His value in the lineup was not only easily measured statistically, it was also evident in terms of intimidation-watching Inaba bat is a study in calm, fearsome resolve. Filling Shinjo’s shoes was the superior Hichyori Morimoto, who was every bit the showman that Shinjo was, but much more as a player. These two players in new roles did their jobs brilliantly, helping power the team to another league title.
That brings us to the matchup between the Chiba Lotte Marines and the SoftBank Hawks. I picked the Hawks to win the Japan Series this season, but a number of factors have hurt their chances and crippled their quest for a league crown. The early-season arm troubles of SoftBank ace Kazumi Saito shook the Fukuoka club, sending them spiraling south in the standings. From the front of the rotation, Saito gives the Hawks an identity, and has a rep for wearing his emotions on his jersey sleeve. In recent years, the dominance delivered by his right arm has been a key to the Hawks’ success, but he has never been truly healthy this season, and it’s doubtful that he will be able to impact the run for the title in a meaningful way. It might take something on the order of the “bloody sock” to salvage a lost year. I doubt that anything that dramatic will emerge for Saito and the fizzling Hawks.
The Marines are really showing their 2005 Championship form this season by posting the best run differential in Japan, save Yomiuri. They boast a solid rotation in Shunsuke Watanabe of WBC fame, 22-year-old Sawamura candidate Yoshihisa Naruse, and Hiroyuki Kobayashi. An overachieving lineup which looks mediocre on paper nevertheless seems to always find a way to score; Bobby Valentine‘s brand of baseball depends on stellar pitching and a different star every night on offense. If I had to pick a Japan Series representative from the Pacific this season, it would be the Marines. I just can’t seem to bet against them, despite the pitching and defense of Nippon Ham.
Lotte: Tomoya Satozaki
Satozaki was the WBC’s “Best Nine” catcher, and a steady presence in the lineup for Bobby V. Anyone might emerge as the playoff star for the Marines, but Satozaki has a knack for being there in the most important games.
SoftBank: Nobuhiko Matsunaka
Matsunaka’s a lock to make the Hall of Fame. His resume is impeccable, but his decline has been dramatic, and the end looks near. If the Hawks are going to make any noise in this short series and beyond, Matsunaka will need to find the fountain of youth to help him for a few weeks.
Lotte: Yoshihisa Naruse
Pitching most of the season as a mere 21-year-old, Naruse will be a popular choice for the Sawamura Award. Yu Darvish will have something to say about that, but Naruse is a star and he wont shy away from the big stage in this series.
SoftBank: Kazumi Saito
With Saito out, the best option for SoftBank is Toshiya Sugiuchi, and the next best option is probably Tsuyoshi Wada. The Hawks will go with Saito in the big game despite his less-than-healthy pitching arm, but it might be their undoing. In this case, less of Saito might be more, but he’ll have to find it in himself to pitch the game of his life to save SoftBank from falling to a superior opponent.
UPDATE: The first two games of the Pacific League series have been played (the Central is still wrapping up its regular season play), and the series is tied at one game apiece. The Hawks dropped the first game to the Marines, 8-4 as Kazumi Saito collapsed; blame manager Sadaharu Oh for putting a pitcher in at 75 percent of his best form. In the second game, SoftBank beat Lotte 8-3, as Nobuhiko Matsunaka went 2-for-5 with a double, homer, and three RBI.