The Central League concluded their 2008 regular season recently and is gearing up for its Climax Series playoffs which will start this Saturday the 18th as Hanshin hosts Chunichi for the best of 3 series at their home away from home, the Kyocera Dome Osaka, because their venerable Koshien Stadium is undergoing renovations that could not have been rescheduled. What, did the Koshien brass think that the Tigers were not going to host any postseason games this year?
Anyways, the Pacific League has completed the first round of its playoffs with the 3rd place Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters earning a clean 2 game sweep over the 2008 miracle team, the Orix Buffaloes, in the very same Osaka Dome. The pitching and defence minded Fighters are built for the postseason where run scoring is at a premium. The Fighters won game 1 behind a strong 1 run (unearned) 14K complete game performance in the 4-1 win by their dominant ace, Yu Darvish. The Buffs managed 9 hits in the game, but 5 of them were of the infield variety. Game 2 featured a strong performance by starter Shugo Fujii and the bats came alive for an easy 7-2 win. Through the quirk of scheduling (probably to maximize weekend dates) the Fighters get to throw Darvish out there in one of the first two games of the PL final against the Saitama Seibu Lions which starts tomorrow, Friday the 17th, and possibly have him pitch the deciding game 6 on the 23rd if necessary. That’ll be a tough hurdle for the Lions to clear, despite starting the best of 7 series off with a 1-0 advantage and playing all games at home.
Back to the CL for the regular season recap and playoff preview.
1. Yomiuri Giants
The all star team that was supposed to win the CL pennant did manage to achieve the feat in the waning days of the season, through a combination of a dominating second half of the season and the monumental Hanshin collapse (more on that later). Signing highly prized free agents Alex Ramirez (144GP 600PA 319/373/617 with 45 HR 125RBI), Seth Greisinger (31GS 206IP 3.06ERA 17-9), and Marc Kroon (61G 61IP 2.21ERA 41SV) from their poorer CL cousins turned out to be an absolute bonanza as Kroon had no injury problems and Rami-chan’s 2007 revival wasn’t a fluke. Well, these were gambles that the richest NPB club could afford to take. The Giants have an import conundrum as Lee Seung-Yeop came on hot coming back from the Olympic where he played hero with 7HR and 18RBI in September (including homering in 3 straight at bats against the lowly BayStars). But their pitcher from downunder Adrian Burnside had a decent season as well when given the opportunity as he had 3.48ERA in 75IP. Teams are allowed to carry 4 imports on the active roster, and the Giants will host the winner of the Hanshin-Chunichi series starting on the 22nd.
After it was all said and done, Michihiro Ogasawara (310/381/573 with 36HR) and catcher Shinnosuke Abe (271/350/502) had their usual productive seasons, and while Tetsuya Utsumi (184.1IP 2.73ERA) had yet another strong season and MLB bound Koji Uehara had a strong second half to make his record a respectable 3.81ERA in 89.2IP after a disasterous start to the season, Hisanori Takahashi returned to his pre-2007 form with 4.13ERA in 122IP and Hiroshi Kisanuki had similar numbers with 4.14ERA in 74IP. The Giants should prove to be a formidable opponent for either winner of the first round, as the team will be right at home in the homer-happy Tokyo Dome.
2. Hanshin Tigers
RS-RA: 578 – 521
The Tigers held the Central League until the 141st game of the 144 game regular season, at one point holding a 13 game lead over the Giants in the summer, but allowed Yomiuri to win the league in the 143rd game of the year completing the greatest choke of Central League history (previous record was the 1996 Giants overcoming a 11.5 game deficit to take the league crown). The Hanshin batters Kanemoto, Akahoshi, and Arai held the top 3 spots in CL OBP rankings with Toritani in 8th at the beginning of summer. But at the end of the season only Akahoshi and Kanemoto kept their spots in the top 10 with 3rd and 6th respectively, Arai and Toritani had just fallen out of the top 10, but Kentaro Sekimoto at .364 in 14th just below the former two means that this team should still know how to get on base and not make outs.
The team is driven by a trio of 40 year olds in Tomoaki “Aniki” Kanemoto (307/392/527, 62XBH 108RBI), Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi (2.99ERA 162.1IP 11-6, most IP on the team), and catcher Akihiro Yano. The Tigers seemed to lose steam midway through the season when key cogs Yano, Arai, and Fujikawa were lost to the Olympic team in Beijing. But not being able to revive the team when these players returned after the Games was just sad. The vaunted reliever trio of JFK was less effective this season, perhaps showing the effects of their age and work over the past several seasons, with Jeff Williams (3.09ERA 55.1IP) and Tomoyuki Kubota (3.16ERA 85.1IP) more hittable than usual and only Kyuji Fujikawa (0.67ERA 67.2IP 38SV) posting his usual numbers. The emergence of Ryo Watanabe (2.67ERA 67.1IP) should take some of the load off the trio and the bullpen will be a key component in the playoffs as Tigers starters don’t go deep into games (as seen by Shimoyanagi’s 162.1IP being the team leader). The team will have to return to an earlier form of getting on base and shutdown bullpen to pull off some success in the postseason against defending Japan Series champs Chunichi and the red hot Giants.
3. Chunichi Dragons
RS-RA: 535 – 556
The defending Japan Series champions had to fight the upstart Hiroshima Carp hard at the end of the season to squeak into the playoffs. The Dragons were battling for the CL pennant until they quickly lost steam with the Olympics where the team lost NPB-high 4 players to Beijing in Araki, Morino, Kawakami, and Iwase, the latter blowing up badly as he was left in or brought into games he shouldn’t have been on the way to Japan’s 4th place finish. The Dragons have a great ace in Kenshin Kawakami (2.30ERA 117.1IP) and Masa Yamamoto had a revival season with 3.16ERA over team high 133.2IP. Closer Hitoki Iwase (2.94ERA 49IP 36SV) has become more hittable over the past two seasons and this may be a key difference with Hanshin.
4. Hiroshima Carp
RS-RA: 537 – 569
Marty Brown’s little team that could almost snatched a playoff spot away from Chunichi but just fell short by 2 games in their final season at the Hiroshima Municipal Stadium. The new Hiroshima stadium that will open next spring looks to be a beauty of a ballpark in the NPB filled with characterless multipurpose domes. The Carp were carried on the back of new import Colby Lewis (2.68ERA 178IP 15-8, 2nd in CL ERA and wins despite being on a losing team) and Kenta Kurihara continues to grow as an offensive force (2008 – 904OPS, 2007 – 873, 2006 – 837) but the team is in serious need other offensive parts to fill out the lineup. Yeah, it’s nice that Higashide hit 310, but he can’t draw walks or hit for power (678 OPS).
5. Tokyo Yakult Swallows
RS-RA: 583 – 569
The birds underperformed their Pythagorean expectations (based on RS-RA) despite having a capable bullpen stocked with Lim Chang-Yong (3.00ERA 51IP 33SV though it seems the league figured out how to hit the funky submariner as the season went along because he was unhittable early in the season), setup men Kenichi Matsuoka (1.39ERA 71.1IP), Takehiko Oshimoto (3.34ERA 72.2IP), and oft-injured Ryota Igarashi (2.47ERA 43.2IP). The emergence of Masanori Ishikawa (2.68ERA 195IP 12-10, after 3 seasons of 4+ ERA) as the staff ace was a bright spot of the pitching staff. On the hitting side, Norichika Aoki replicated his 2007 season with 347/413/529 further cementing his position as one of the best Japanese hitters. The emergence of Kazuhiro Hatakeyama (279/364/406) and Kazuki Fukuchi (320/366/449) as dependable bats is promising. And there is talk that Aaron Guiel will return to the Swallows next year after a miserable injury-riddled season (200/306/396), his age (36) is a worrying factor though for a three true outcomes (strikeout, homerun, walk) type player like him.
6. Yokohama BayStars
RS-RA: 552 – 706
The miserable season for Yokohama came to a thankful end, but not before the BayStars managed to become the only team to surrender over 700 runs this season. The only bright spots on the team were hitters Shuichi Murata who won the CL homerun title with 46 roundtrippers (though 29 were hit in his bandbox of a home park Yokohama Stadium), and the breakout season by Seiichi Uchikawa (378/416/540) who became only the 10th player in NPB history to finish the season with a batting average north of .370, can he be the second coming of Norichika Aoki?