|

Lions no lock for Pacific League pennant with playoff system

by Wayne Graczyk

Letters from Kyushu

Hi Wayne: The media pundits overwhelmingly pick the (Yomiuri) Giants and (Fukuoka Daiei) Hawks to be representatives in the next Japan Series. As for the Giants, they are loaded, but presently (manager Tsuneo) Horiuchi uses his starters well over the 100-pitch count, and they may have arm problems as the season progresses.

I predict a sure championship for the Seibu Lions, as manager (Tsutomu) Ito is one of the best, despite being in his first year. After 21 years of catching, he knows a lot of the weaknesses of his opponents and will use them to his advantage.

Don Staley, Amagi-shi, Fukuoka

Good points, Don. But Horiuchi is gaining more confidence in his bullpen, thanks to recent good outings by Americans Brian Sikorski and Matt Randel and lefty closer Hideki Okajima.

The Giants also just signed another foreign pitcher, Bryan Corey, and we’ll see what role Horiuchi has for him.

The Lions are looking good, with a two-game lead over the Hawks in the Pacific League as of May 10.

The amazing thing is the Lions have played so well without shortstop Kazuo Matsui (gone to the New York Mets) and slugger Alex Cabrera (who will miss the first two months of the season after undergoing surgery for a broken forearm on March 30).

Also, the “Boy Wonder” pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka, has been struggling.

Matsuzaka, by the way, is 2-4 with a sky-high (for him) ERA of 5.05.

Moreover, he picked a bad day to have a terrible outing May 5, giving up nine runs in five innings while losing to the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes at Seibu Dome.

The kid, viewed as a possible major leaguer via the posting system as early as 2005, was being watched by scouts from at least three MLB teams: the Atlanta Braves, Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins, on that final holiday of Golden Week.

Other Seibu players have obviously picked up the slack, though, under Ito’s leadership, led by Matsui’s replacement at shortstop, Hiroyuki Nakajima, who is batting .314 with seven homers and a Pa League-leading 36 RBIs.

Left-fielder Kazuhiro Wada has stats of .305, 12, 30, and first baseman Jose Fernandez’s numbers are .302, 10, 32.

Don’t count your chickens, though, on the pennant being a cinch.

It is a long season and, even if the Lions finish the year in first place by a wide margin, the Pacific League’s new playoff system will be tricky with the top three clubs involved and the hottest one at that time, not necessarily the first-place team, likely to make the Japan Series.

Wayne: I hear rumors this year’s June 2 Daiei-Lotte game will be the last (pro) game played at Kitakyushu Citizen’s Stadium. Say it ain’t so . . .

Matt Rowles, Kitakyushu

It ain’t so, Matt. At least not yet.

I checked with the Pacific League office and was told the June 2 game is the only one scheduled in your town this season, but they could not say if the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks or other teams will play one or more games there in 2005 and succeeding seasons.

I can recall when KCS (not to be confused with KFC) was known as Kokura Stadium. The Nishitetsu (Fukuoka) Lions played several Pacific League games there each season during the 1960s and through 1972, as did the Taiheiyo Club (1973-1976) and Crown Lighter Lions (1977-1978) until the team was sold to Seibu and moved to Saitama Prefecture in 1979.

I used to drive or take the train up the line from my U.S. Air Force duty station in Fukuoka to see games in Kokura between 1969 and 1972, as well as a bunch of Lions contests at the regular home, Heiwadai Stadium in Fukuoka.

Various Central and Pacific League teams, including the Yomiuri Giants, played games in Kokura between 1979 and 1988, and the park was always a stop on postseason tours by visiting major league teams such as the Baltimore Orioles (1971), New York Mets (1974) and Cincinnati Reds (1978).

The Hawks, after moving from Osaka to Fukuoka in 1989, picked up the northern Kyushu tradition of playing a good chunk of their home schedule at Kokura but, after Fukuoka Dome was opened in 1993, Daiei games in Kitakyushu were limited to five per season; one each against the other Pacific League teams.

The reason only one game is on tap there this year may have something to do with finances.

Most Hawks games played in the 48,000-seat Fukuoka Dome draw crowds of more than 40,000, and there is no chance of a rainout.

The best attendance they could expect in Kitakyushu is 25,000, there is worry about the weather, and there are necessarily extra expenses for travel.

Having said that, I should point out the Hawks will be hosting the Seibu Lions at the beautiful new 30,000-seat Sun Marine Stadium in Miyazaki on Wednesday and the Yomiuri Giants will play the Hiroshima Carp on Tuesday, May 25, at Sun Marine in south Kyushu.

Great ball park with real infield grass and all the facilities of a big league setting.

A heads-up: “Baseball Bullet-In” will appear again next week, as Marty Kuehnert has gone to the U.S. to join author Robert Whiting and others on a tour that had them speaking at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

With Marty away, my column will run this week and next, then “On the Keen Edge” will run two weeks in a row, May 26 and June 2.