The Central League still has a few rain out games to remake that will determine first place, and the huge one game advantage and home field advantage (all games at home), so I’ll leave the CL until next week.
The Pacific League has completed its regular season schedule and the first round of the playoffs (best of 3) begins this Saturday.
So, here’s the season review and Climax Series playoff preview.
1. Saitama Seibu Lions
The powerful team that ran with the PL lead all season backed into clinching the PL crown while losing 7 straight because 2nd place Orix was also in a losing skid. The team will be without GG Sato (105GP 432PA 30 2B 21HR 302/368/546) in the playoffs. GG was invaluable in the first half of the season until his Olympic blunder (though, he was playing out of position) and subsequent injury. Luckily for the Lions, they have a capable replacement in Taketoshi Goto who blossomed in GG’s absence with 49GP 184PA 14 2B 12HR 301/370/602. The big time slugging team just fell shy of 200 homeruns with 198 (in a 144 game season!), significant contributions coming from Takeya Nakamura’s breakout 46 homers, Hiram Bocachica’s 20HR in just 78 games, shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima who had an MVP season with 124GP 556PA 32 2B 21HR 331/410/527, and Craig Brazell’s 27 homers (though with a blackhole 294 OBP). The team struggled in September with a 9-15 record, but has a couple of weeks to prepare for their playoff appearance on October 17th and hopefully will be back in form by then, and the one game and home field advantages should help. But if the shutdown pitching of Fighters win the first round of the playoffs, the Lions will have a tough task at their hands, as pitching and defense are paramount in the playoffs, and slugging not so much.
2. Orix Buffaloes
The surprise team of the season, as most people had written them off far out of the playoff picture in their preseason predictions. American manager Terry Collins resigned in May with a 21-28 record, since then interim manager Daijiro Oishi directed the team to a great 54-40-1 (.574) record. The team definitely has more momentum than the Lions at the moment finishing off the season by sweeping the Lions in a 2 game series and capping it off with a win against the lowly Hawks. The Buffs rely on the power bats of NPB veterans Alex Cabrera (37yo 36HR 315/394/593) and Tuffy Rhodes (40yo 40HR 277/394/583). Word in the clubhouse is that Oishi had much better relationships with the sluggers than Collins, and they performed much better with the new manager after season opening slumps. Pitching on this team isn’t shabby either with the unheralded four Satoshi Komatsu (172.1IP 2.51ERA 15-3 3holds), Chihiro Kaneko (165IP 3.98ERA 10-9), Shogo Yamamoto (154.2IP 3.38ERA 10-6 2holds) and Kazuki Kondo (149IP 3.44ERA 10-7) anchoring the rotation. The Buffs will be a formidable opponent at home in the first round of the playoffs against the Fighters, as the only difference is in Darvish (though that’s a big difference) but the Fighters have absolutly no power and Rhodes and Cabrera can win the series for them in the non-Darvish games.
3. Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters
This low scoring team is built for its cavernous home, the Sapporo Dome, and rightly so as the team’s recent playoff success topped by being the Japan Series and Asia Series champions in 2006. The Fighters are, of course, led by the best pitcher in Japan in Yu Darvish (200.2IP despite going to the Olympics! 10CG 208K 1.88ERA 16-4). But one man can’t win a best of 3 series, and the rest of their pitching staff is not spectacular with Ryan Glynn (3.64ERA), Brian Sweeney (3.48ERA), Masaru Takeda (2.96ERA), and Shugo Fujii (3.25ERA) for getting to pitch half their games in a pitcher’s paradise. The Fighters hit a league low 82 homers during the season, but time and again over the years they’ve shown that they can win closely fought games, so as long as the team can hold a lead to its shutdown closer Micheal Nakamura (2.14ERA 46.1IP 28SV) the team will be able to win in the playoffs (reliable setup man Takeda Hisashi with ERAs in the 2s the last two seasons has been rather hittable this season with 4.40ERA). The power will be supplied by Kensuke Tanaka (297/379/451 32 2B), Atsunori Inaba (301/380/513 25 2B 20HR), and Terrmel Sledge (289/361/473). Hmm.. looking at this, I think the Fighters can take the first round of the playoffs against the Buffaloes. All they have to do is win one of the non-Darvish games and both teams equally rely on just a few power bats that can mightily swing the series.
4. Chiba Lotte Marines
Bobby Valentine’s team finished just half a game out of the playoffs in the fierce battle that lasted until the end of the season. The gaping hole in relief left open by the departures of Yabuta (Kansas City), Fujita (Yomiuri), and Kobayashi (Cleveland) were nicely filled in with Yusuke Kawasaki (3.00ERA 29holds), Brian Sikorski (2.23ERA 13holds), and the emergence of Tadahiro Ogino (2.45ERA 30SV) as the team’s closer. The team wasn’t short on power either with Shoitsu Ohmatsu (499SLG), Toshiaki Imae (509SLG), Jose Ortiz (454SLG from 2B), and Tasuku Hashimoto (404OBP and 536SLG as a catcher!). The team just fell short. Better luck next year, Bobby.
5. Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
This mystery team posted a positive run differential all season but struggled to put together a winning season and was removed from the playoff race early in the summer. I’m sure losing their closer Fukumori (Texas) didn’t help, but the team needs more help in relief so that it can win close games, even though Tsuyoshi Kawagishi (1.94ERA 55.2IP) and Kanehisa Arime (2.05ERA 44IP) both put up impressive numbers in relief. As long as 40 year old slugger Takeshi Yamasaki’s performance (276/372/471) doesn’t fall off a cliff, the team should be able to expect better things next season. Hisashi Iwakuma had an incredible season (1.87ERA 5CG 201.2IP 21-4, a definite Sawamura (Japanese Cy Young) frontrunner along with Darvish) considering how incompetent his teammates were.
6. Fukuoka Softbank Hawks
The living legend Sadaharu Oh’s team was in playoff contention until late summer, then had a disastrous Sept-Oct (6-21!) and ended up finishing at the bottom of the standings, even losing the final game for Oh in a “sayonara” walk-off fashion to nearly futile Eagles. 35 year old Nobuhiko Matsunaka’s slip in performance over the last several years (2004-1.179OPS, 2005-1.075, 2006-.981, 2007-.798, 2008-.871) is a concern as he’s not getting any younger. Fellow slugger Hiroki Kokubo is even older at 37, Hitoshi Tamura is always battling injuries, so the only bright hope is the up and coming third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda (279/322/468), his lack of ability to draw walks is concerning but he’s still 25. On the pitching side, Toshiya Sugiuchi had a great season (2.66ERA 196IP) and Ohtonari had a solid season (3.12ERA 155.2IP) but highly touted rookie Shota Ohba had a disastrous campaign (5.42ERA 78IP 14HR), he’ll have to cut down on the number of homers given up to improve his performance.