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PACIFIC LEAGUE PREVIEW

Hawks poised to give Oh pennant

by Wayne Graczyk

The 2007 Pacific League season opens March 24, and it promises to be another exciting campaign leading to the loop’s “Climax Series” of postseason playoffs involving the top three finishers in October.

News photoYu Darvish is hoping to fire the Fighters back into the Japan Series.
KYODO PHOTO

Half the league’s teams have American managers, and it will be interesting to see if one of them can win the Japan Series and make it three years in a row for Japan’s champions to be guided by a foreigner.

With several stars gone from the league due to retirement, injury, major league posting and free agency, the PL is hoping more new quality players will emerge to take the places of the ones no longer here.

Following is a team-by-team preview of what is to be expected and whose names will probably be in the headlines throughout the year.

Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters — Manager Trey Hillman may find it difficult to repeat last year’s shinjirarenai (unbelievable) performance without two key players from the 2006 Pa League, Japan Series and Asia Series championship team.

Gone are flamboyant center fielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo, off to make more money as a pitchman in beer commercials and for other products, and first baseman Michihiro “Guts” Ogasawara, now the third baseman for the Yomiuri Giants, leaving the champs via free agency.

However, Hillman will focus on guys still there, and plenty of talent remains. Key position players are leadoff man Hichori Morimoto, who assumed Shinjo’s uniform No. 1 and the middle outfield position, and right fielder Atsunori Inaba, the 2006 Japan Series MVP.

Top starting pitchers include the young righty-lefty combo of Yu Darvish and Tomoya Yagi, who won a total of 24 games last season.

Micheal Nakamura is arguably the best closer in Japan (39 saves in ’06).

On his foreign player roster, Hillman has slugging first baseman Fernando Seguignol, newcomer Andy Green in the infield and pitchers Ryan Glynn (moving in from the Rakuten Eagles) and Brian Sweeney.

Seibu Lions — Skipper Tsutomu Ito leads his Leos into the season under a scandal cloud again, this time involving those under-the-table payments by Seibu scouts to amateur players.

On the field, the team is a perennial playoff contender but, this time, Ito will have to operate without ace right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka, now “Dice-K” of the Boston Red Sox.

He’s got six prominent Japanese players, though, and a crew of gaikokujin ready to pick up the slack.

The most pressure is on three hitters: outfielders Kazuhiro Wada and Shogo Akada and shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima.

Right-handers Fumiya Nishiguchi and Hideaki Wakui are the top starting hurlers, and Chikara Onodera is one of the better savers in the country with 29 rescues in 2006.

The main lumber-lugger, though, is Venezuelan first baseman Alex Cabrera, who led the PL with 100 RBIs in 2006 and is back for his seventh season in Tokorozawa.

American infielder Jeff Liefer is also expected to make a significant contribution, and U.S. pitchers Chris Gissell, Alex Graman and Jason Johnson hope to help fill the void left by Matsuzaka’s departure.

Fukuoka Softbank Hawks — Gone from manager Sadaharu Oh’s lineup is slugger Julio Zuleta, but back after three seasons with the Yomiuri Giants is third baseman Hiroki Kokubo. He will form a potent one-two punch with 2004 Triple Crown hitter Nobuhiko Matsunaka in the heart of Oh’s batting order.

Other stars in the field are shortstop Munenori Kawasaki and center fielder Naoyuki Omura, and the team is loaded with strong pitching arms.

Right-handers Kazumi Saito (the 2006 league leader with 18 wins and a 1.75 ERA) and Nagisa Arakaki and lefties Toshiya Sugiuchi (the 2005 PL MVP) and Tsuyoshi Wada form a quartet as good as any in baseball anywhere.

The wild card for the Hawks this year, however, is the foursome of American newcomers to the club: Pitchers Rick Guttormson (two years of Japan experience and a no-hitter with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows) and C.J. Nitkowski, infielder Brian Buchanan and outfielder Adam Hyzdu.

Hopefully, Oh-san will remain strong and healthy as he turns 67 in May and continues to recover from that surgery last summer to remove his stomach.

Chiba Lotte Marines — Bobby Valentine’s club slipped to fourth in 2006 after winning it all the year before but could easily bounce back to the top of the charts this season.

Four starting pitchers who performed so well two years ago, winning in double figures, are still there: Shunsuke Watanabe, Hiroyuki Kobayashi, Naoyuki Shimizu and Yasutomo Kubo.

If 19-year-old rookie Yuta Omine can break in right away, that would be another plus, and closer Masahide Kobayashi (34 saves last season) is an All-Star.

Leading the offensive charge are first baseman Kazuya Fukuura, shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka (going “Ichiro-style” by his first name only), third baseman Toshiaki Imae, outfielder Saburo Omura (another first-name player) and catcher Tomoya Satozaki.

The foreigners will make their mark as well with Zuleta in the lineup most likely as the DH, Benny Agbayani (yet another first-namer) and Matt Watson in the outfield, and 17-game winning pitcher in Taiwan Wu Szu-yo adding one more outstanding arm to the mound staff.

Orix Buffaloes — New manager Terry Collins inherits a club that will start the season without its two big — albeit aging — sluggers from last year. Third baseman Norihiro Nakamura is now with the Chunichi Dragons, and first sacker Kazuhiro Kiyohara is out after knee surgery.

The best Japanese guys ready to play would be first baseman Hirotoshi Kitagawa, shortstop Makoto Shiozaki and outfielder Arihito Muramatsu, and Collins says to keep an eye on 23-year-old rookie infielder Keiji Obiki.

A trio of Americans will be counted on heavily to drive in runs: infielder Greg LaRocca (playing for his third Japanese team in as many years) and outfielders Chad Allen and — he’s back, ta da — Tuffy Rhodes, the four-time home run king who, as a 10-year player in Japan, does not count against his team’s foreign-player quota.

American Tom Davey, Orix’s best pitcher in 2006, returns to the rotation with Japanese hurlers Hidetaka Kawagoe and 42-year-old major league veteran Masato Yoshii. Another U.S. guy, Lance Carter, is also on Collins’ pitching staff.

Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles — Seventy-one-year-old field boss Katsuya Nomura improved the Sendai club’s won-loss record slightly in its second year of existence in 2006, and there is hope for more progress this year.

The biggest bats in the Eagles’ lineup belong to sluggers Jose Fernandez at third base and Kevin Witt who won two home run titles in the North American Triple-A leagues over the past three seasons.

Witt played briefly with the Yokohama BayStars in 2005 and can play first base, the outfield or DH for Nomura.

Utility man Rick Short is also back and, while not a power hitter, he always hits .300.

Japanese standouts in the Rakuten lineup include center fielder Teppei Tsuchiya, first baseman Takeshi Yamazaki, second sacker Yosuke Takasu and right fielder Koichi Isobe.

Nomura’s best hope, though, is in his pitching staff. If right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma can revert to his days as an All-Star with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, it would be huge.

Also in the starting rotation are righties Yasuhiro Ichiba and Hiroki Yamamura and the leading winner in Taiwan last year, Lin En-yu, who notched 17 victories and posted a 1.73 ERA with the Macoto Cobras.

Highly touted 18-year-old rookie Masahiro Tanaka could also provide a ton of excitement if he can prove he’s ready to pitch at the professional level.

The Eagles will surely be more competitive but may not yet be ready to vacate the Pacific League basement.

The Opening Day schedule next Saturday sees the Fighters at the Marines in a Hillman-Valentine faceoff at Chiba Marine Stadium, the Buffaloes at the Hawks in Fukuoka, and the Eagles visiting the Lions at the newly named Goodwill Dome in Tokorozawa, west of Tokyo.

Predicted order of finish: 1) Softbank, 2) Lotte, 3) Nippon Ham, 4) Orix, 5) Seibu and 6) Rakuten.

Next week: A preview of the 2007 Central League teams and season.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com