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Lotte Marines ready to tackle some unfinished business in Japan Series

by Stephen Ellsesser

CHIBA — The atmosphere around Chiba Marine Stadium in the hours leading up to Saturday is not one of over- jubilation.

News photo WIDTH="200" HEIGHT="276"/>Lotte catcher Tomoya Satozaki has been a hero with the bat for the Japan Series-bound Marines this postseason.

The players smile and the fans wait outside the stadium, but the Pacific League champs are in the same mode they were when the season began, championship mode.

Fresh off a 3-2 series win in the second-stage Pacific League playoffs against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks at Yahoo Dome, the Marines will face the Hanshin Tigers in the franchise’s first Japan Series since 1974, beginning Saturday at 6:15 p.m. in Chiba.

Lotte is happy to be where it is, but the Marines are not planning to settle for an appearance in Japan Series.

The first two games will be played in Chiba before heading to Osaka and historic Koshien Stadium on Tuesday.

Hanshin will be coming into the series on a bit of a lull, just like the Hawks did. After finishing in first place in the Pa League, Softbank had two weeks off between the end of the regular season and its series against Lotte, and the Tigers have had an even longer layoff.

The Central League awards its pennant to the regular season champion, so the Tigers have known they will be playing in the Japan Series since September and have been idle since playing their final regular season game Oct. 5.

Starting with its first-stage series sweep of the Seibu Lions, Lotte has not had many days off since the regular season, allowing the Marines to keep momentum going from series to series.

If continuity provided an advantage over the Hawks and whether it will against the Tigers may never be known, but it is not affecting Lotte either way.

Perhaps one of the biggest keys to Lotte’s postseason run was its strong regular season. The Marines finished up with the best record in interleague play this season but, more importantly, the 4 1/2-game deficit with the Hawks kept the Marines close enough to prevent Softbank from being handed an automatic 1-0 lead in the series.

Had Lotte trailed by five games, the advantage would have kicked in. The Marines lost two games to the Hawks, so that is all it would have taken for Lotte’s dream season to be over and the Hawks to be in Japan Series. Marines manager Bobby Valentine told Marines fans after the Seibu series that the team planned to “return to Chiba (Marine) Stadium and give fans a good show in the Japan Series,” a promise his team made a reality. He has made no secret of his feelings about the role of team unity in Lotte’s success.

Valentine likes his team’s character, and he loves Lotte’s fans.

“I think many of them have had dreams of watching baseball games when other fans are home thinking of next year,” Valentine said before the Seibu series. “I’m glad we have the chance of fulfilling those dreams for them.”

Hanshin has won two of the last three CL pennants, but the Marines have made a season of showing that history and stats are not always the best indicators of success.

Lotte has eliminated the defending Japan Series champs and the team with Japan’s best regular season record for two years running, and now sets its sights on one of Japanese baseball’s most storied franchises.

Now the Marines and Valentine will try to become the first team led by a gaijin manager to reach the pinnacle of Japanese baseball. It has been a while since a gaijin manager has even made it to the Japan Series, but the time frame should look familiar to longtime Lotte fans.

The last time Lotte won the Japan Series, in 1974 as the Lotte Orions, it beat the Chunichi Dragons, who were managed by Maui-born Wally Yonamine. The Marines have already broken one streak of 31 years, which puts them in position to make a little history as an encore.