Super start: Pitching stars square off in Pacific League series opener



TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. — The Seibu Lions are right where they want to be.

Well, sort of.

Although they missed out on a first-round bye after finishing second in the Pacific League standings, Seibu begins the PL playoffs at home against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, a team that struggled late in the season.

Softbank ended the year on a six-game losing streak, its last victory coming on Sept. 18 against the Lions at Invoice Seibu Dome, where the three-game first stage of the Pa League postseason begins Saturday.

Game 1 of the series will be a pitching blockbuster, as the Hawks’ Kazumi Saito (18-5) matches up against Lions ace Daisuke Matsuzaka (17-5).

Matsuzaka and Saito. Saito and Matsuzaka. Statistically, they are the two best pitchers in Japan.

Saito’s 205 strikeouts led the league, and Matsuzaka was second with 200.

Saito’s 1.75 ERA kept Matsuzaka (second with 2.13) from winning his third PL ERA title in four years. Saito led the league with five shutouts, while Matsuzaka’s 14 complete games set the pace.

What’s the point? Both are tough, nasty pitchers who batters hate to face.

And both will be going full bore to give their team a leg up in the short three-game weekend tieup.

When the two went head-to-head back in April, Matsuzaka came out the victor.

And Saito has been making up for it ever since.

Saito is 3-1 against the Lions this year, and the Hawks have beaten Seibu only once since before the interleague season without the right-hander’s help.

Saito’s last win was Softbank’s as well, leaving the team hopeful Saito remembers how to beat the kings of Saitama Prefecture.

Although the Hawks have one of the deepest rotations in baseball, they will have to make it through this weekend without one of the pitching staff’s most vital cogs.

Righty Nagisa Arakaki, who most certainly would start a game if the series was pushed to the limit, is out for the first round with appendicitis, the team announced at the beginning of the week.

Arakaki (13-5, 3.01, 151) was taken off the active roster and would not be able to return to the lineup until Oct. 12, when the second game of the second-stage playoffs will take place in Sapporo. That would mean nothing if the Hawks don’t take two of three in Tokorozawa.

Arakaki’s ailment was another blow to a team that has gone more than three months without manager Sadaharu Oh, who had his stomach removed to ward off the early stages of stomach cancer.

Softbank has succeeded even without the enigmatic Oh’s leadership in the clubhouse, but with the late-season swoon, one wonders if things are finally catching up to the boys from Fukuoka.

Even playing at this time of year is a bit new for the Hawks, something else that could play into Seibu’s favor.

This is the PL’s third year of playoffs, and each of the previous years, the Hawks finished atop the regular season standings, giving them a first-round bye. Each time, however, they lost in the finals.

The Lions are veterans of the first stage.

Seibu finished second in 2004, when it won its last Japan Series, beating the Fighters in the first stage in three game before taking the PL title in five against Softbank.

Last season, Seibu came into the playoffs with a sub-.500 record and was swept by Chiba Lotte in the first round.

Game time Saturday and Sunday at Seibu Dome is 1 p.m., and if necessary, Monday’s game will start at 1 as well. The second stage of the postseason begins Wednesday in Sapporo, where the Fighters await this weekend’s victor with a one-game advantage in the revamped postseason format.

Collins joins Orix

KOBE (Kyodo) Terry Collins, who managed the Houston Astros and the Anaheim Angels in the 1990s, has been appointed as new manager of the Orix Buffaloes, the Pacific League club said Friday.

Collins, 54, will take over from Katsuhiro Nakamura, whose injury-ravaged team finished fifth in the league in his first year. Orix’s contract with Collins is for three years.

Collins has been serving as player development director at the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have a working relationship with Orix. He is scheduled to arrive in Japan on Oct. 18.

“Collins has years of coaching experience and is passionate about the game. The team needs to be strengthened drastically and we believe he is the most suited for the job,” Buffaloes owner Yoshihiko Miyauchi said.

Collins managed the Astros in 1994-1996 and the Angels in 1997-1999.

Kudo to return

Forty-three-year-old left-hander Kimiyasu Kudo has agreed to stay with the Yomiuri Giants for another season, club representative Hidetoshi Kiyotake said Friday.

“Kudo has said he’ll call it quits if his results next year are like this season’s. Our club wants him to continue pitching if he is determined like that,” Kiyotake said. Kudo tops active Japanese pitchers with 215 wins but has won just three games against two losses this season.

It will be his 26th season in Japanese baseball and he will turn 44 next May.

Yomiuri and Kudo have yet to work out details of next season’s contract, Kiyotake said. (Kyodo News)

Dragons top Carp

NAGOYA (Kyodo) Masahiro Yamamoto threw seven solid innings and Kosuke Fukudome hit a two-run homer, leading the Chunichi Dragons to a 5-2 victory over the Hiroshima Carp on Friday.

Chunichi reduced its magic number to four for winning the CL title and pushed its lead back to three games over the Hanshin Tigers, whose game against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows was rained out.