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CENTRAL LEAGUE CLIMAX SERIES

Will mercurial Tigers end slump?

by Jason Coskrey

Here are five questions heading into the first stage of the Central League Climax Series between the Hanshin Tigers and Chunichi Dragons:

Which Hanshin team will show up?

The Tigers have had a roller-coaster year filled with extreme highs and lows in rapid succession. In September alone, Hanshin started the month with a eight-game winning streak and climbed into first place in the CL and ended it by losing nine of 10 (a string that began with an eight-game losing streak) and falling to third in the league.

News photoDragons right-hander Kenshin Kawakami’s playoff experience could be a boost to his club in the first
stage of the Central League Climax Series against the Hanshin Tigers. The series begins on Saturday.
KYODO PHOTO

That’s the type of erratic year the Tigers have gone through this season. When they’ve been good, everybody has hit and pitched well, resulting in prolonged winning streaks (they also won nine-straight at one point this season). And when they’ve been bad, everyone has gone south together.

The Tigers are 2-11 over their last 13 games but the question is this: Are they due for another hot streak, or in for a short stay in Nagoya?

Which pitching staff has the edge in the short series?

Chunichi is strong at the plate but in a three-game series it has the talent to beat the Tigers’ pitchers.

In the first two games, Chunichi is likely to send out a pair of veterans in Kenshin Kawakami (12-8) and Kenta Asakura (12-7).

Should the series go to a third game there’s the possibility that Hanshin will have to overcome one of the CL’s hottest pitchers in Daisuke Yamai (6-4), who ended the year by winning four games in September to earn the league’s monthly MVP award for pitchers.

Chunichi also features one of the top closers in the league in Hitoki Iwase, who ranked second in Japanese baseball with 43 saves trailing only Hanshin closer Kyuji Fujikawa’s 46.

What are the keys for the Tigers?

Among the many things Hanshin has to do to win this series, pitching is high on the list. Which makes the most important man on the Hanshin roster at the moment the Game 1 starter.

A win in the first game, especially with all three on the road, would be big for the Tigers’ confidence and should take some of the pressure off. Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi, who is a candidate to start the first game, is a 10-game winner but has struggled lately.

The 17-year veteran went a month between wins before beating Yokohama on Oct. 1, and has an ERA of 4.10. The 39-year-old is still a force when he’s dialed in, which could be key to the Tigers’ hopes.

What are the keys for the Dragons?

There’s no real special formula for the Dragons to advance to the second stage. Chunichi was one of the most balanced teams in the CL this year, second only to the Yomiuri Giants in runs (623) and Hanshin in team ERA (3.59).

The formula for the Dragons, who have won seven of the last 10 against Hanshin, is to just keep doing what they’ve done all year.

Who can be the difference makers?

Masahiro Araki and Hirokazu Ibata could be influential in a Chunichi win. Both are accomplished base stealers, with Araki leading the lead with 31 swipes and Ibata finishing third with 23. But their biggest contribution could be setting up Tyrone Woods.

Woods, who finished second in the league with 35 home runs and has carried the Dragons since Kosuke Fukudome went down with an injury, is a game-changing force at the plate. However how big an impact he can make might be tied to Araki and Ibata getting on base in front him.

For the Tigers their famed JFK (Jeff Williams, Fujikawa and Tomoyuki Kubota) corp of relievers could turn the tide in their favor.

Fujikawa was the top closer in Japanese baseball this season. What’s more, last month he set a CL record with 10 consecutive appearances, going 2-0 with seven saves. He also closed out a game in a non-save situation during that span.

Williams pitched in 60 games and posted an 0.96 ERA in 65 1/3 innings and Kubota had a 1.75 ERA in 108 innings.

If the Tigers can get a good performance out of their starters and push across a run or two, they can fall back on JFK, which is usually a good bet to protect a lead.

The first game between the two teams is Saturday at 6 p.m. at Nagoya Dome.

Swallows eye Takada

Kyodo News The Yakult Swallows made a formal offer to Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters general manager Shigeru Takada on Friday to be their field manager for next season.

“Since there are important games left, I need time before making a decision,” Takada said, while adding, “I don’t see any obstacles (for taking the job).”

The 62-year-old will step down from the general manager’s post after the postseason. He was a Nippon Ham field manager for four years through 1988.

“We made a formal offer today. I’m relieved Takada-san said he will give it positive consideration,” Yakult club president Tadashi Suzuki said.

Rockies stay poised

PHOENIX (AP) There was no team meeting to discuss how Colorado batters would approach Brandon Webb on Thursday night in Game 1 of the NLCS. They’d seen the Arizona ace enough to already know that to succeed, they had to take a lot of pitches.

The sinkerball thrower thrives on aggressive hitters.

“We didn’t want to fire early unless we felt confident it was something we could square up,” Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said.

That meant batters had to be comfortable allowing the count to get to two strikes.

“We have seen him a number of times,” Hurdle said. “And, you know, patience, not just in baseball but in a lot of different areas, usually has a tendency to work to your advantage.”