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Tigers learning a tough postseason lesson

by Stephen Ellsesser

The Chiba Lotte Marines have a 2-0 lead in the Japan Series, and with the way the Hanshin Tigers have played the first two games, the Marines could leave Osaka with the Japan Series title.

News photo WIDTH="200" HEIGHT="255"/>Hanshin pitcher Kei Igawa and his Tigers teammates are struggling to shake off the rust following a 2 1/2 week layoff. The Chiba Lotte Marines lead the Japan Series 2-0 after crushing the Tigers 10-1 Saturday and 10-0 Sunday.

If the Series is a sweep — and the Tigers have shown no reason why it won’t be — the Central League will have some hard thinking to do in the offseason. Its champion is being embarrassed in front of a national audience, and a large part of the reason is not having a postseason.

The Tigers head home to Koshien Stadium, which should inject some life back into the Central League champs, who have been outhit, outpitched and outplayed in all 16 innings of Series play thus far.

And the way Game 1 was going, Hanshin would have been outclassed for 18 innings, but the fog brought early closure to the first rout.

It’s not that the Hanshin Tigers are a bad team. The Tigers have the probable CL MVP in Tomoaki Kanemoto, and in their longer regular season, they won more games than Lotte did. The Tigers wrapped up the pennant in late September, giving them nothing but a week’s worth of essentially meaningless regular season games to get them ready for the Japan Series, more than two weeks later.

The culprit for Hanshin’s poor Series showing is a bad system, one that brings the Central League pennant winner into the Japan Series cold turkey, without any sort of playoff series as a tuneup.

Getting a little bit of rest is a nice perk for the team with the best regular season record, but not one player in Hanshin stripes was overly enthusiastic about having some 17 days between the end of the season and Saturday’s first pitch at Chiba Marine Stadium.

Hanshin first baseman Andy Sheets was right about the layoff affecting hitters more than it does pitchers. Pitchers can always use extra rest, but when hitters have to take extended leave from seeing live pitching, it begins to affect their timing. Simulated games are no substitute for real competition.

And Hanshin outfielder Shane Spencer, who has not played in the Japan Series, may not play until Lotte lefty Dan Serafini takes the hill, likely in game four. He will have had nearly three weeks without an at-bat.

The Central League has written into its bylaws situational playoff scenarios, but these require either a tie in the standings, a team with more wins finishing with a worse winning percentage than the top team or Babe Ruth coming back from the dead to suit up for the Hiroshima Carp, which is just as likely to happen as any postseason pennant race year-in, year-out under the CL’s current system.

It’s no secret that the CL boasts Japan’s most popular teams. The fan interest and financial benefits of having a postseason, even if it is a series between the top two teams in the division, would be off the charts. Finding the PL playoffs on TV was something only premium cable subscribers could do, but in a CL playoff, the access would be much greater.

Make no mistake, the fans would come if the league would meet them halfway.

Even the PL system of playoffs, with the regular season leader getting a first-round bye and the second- and third-place teams battling it out in a three-game series, is not perfect.

The Marines kept a lid on the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and their loaded offense for two games after sweeping the Seibu Lions in the first-stage playoffs, but just in time, the Hawks shook the rust off, toasted Lotte closer Masahide Kobayashi, and won two straight to get back into the five-game series.

Whether Hanshin could muster a similar recovery remains to be seen, but there is no doubt they are rusty like the Hawks, but unlike Softbank, Hanshin’s pitching and defense have been like a leaky sieve in containing Lotte’s offense, as compared to the Hawks, whose worst loss to the Marines was 4-2 in the first game.

Even if Hanshin’s hitters had better timing, they likely would not have won either of the first two Japan Series games. But maybe they would have been competitive and not heading to Koshien desperate to recapture some part of their mojo.

Right now the PL is making the elder statesman look foolish. The CL is where the money, TV coverage and clout reside, but the PL is where the excitement lives, and with Lotte on its way to making the PL the Japan Series victor for the third straight year, the respect is starting to head that way as well.

It is Pacific League, home of the playoffs, versus Central League, home of the layoffs.

The time has come for the CL to have a postseason.