OSAKA – The first stage of the Pacific League Climax Series matches two teams that will contest strength against strength to decide which team will advance to face the Seibu Lions in the second stage.
The two-time defending Pa League Climax Series Champion Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters will pit Yu Darvish and their pitching staff against the Orix Buffaloes’ powerful Tuffy Rhodes-driven offense in Saturday’s series-opening game.
Here are five key questions ahead of the series:
Which team is in better shape?
The Fighters are hot and will be riding a wave of momentum into Osaka Dome. Nippon Ham finished the season with an 8-1 run over its final nine games. More importantly, the Fighters’ notoriously anemic offense outscored the opposition 51-16 over that span.
Ace Darvish has been dominant again this season, going 16-4 with a 1.88 ERA, and manager Masataka Nashida is likely pleased with starter Ryan Glynn’s recent form (3-1 over his last five starts) after a slow start.
The Fighters also have 12-game winner Brian Sweeney to turn to, as well as Masaru Takeda, who, like Glynn, has been strong in recent weeks.
Orix has been on a roll since the All-Star break and is 50-40-1 since manager Daijiro Oishi took over for Terry Collins.
The Buffaloes feature the most dynamic duo in the Pacific League in Rhodes and Alex Cabrera, who have a combined 76 home runs this season. They head what statistically was the third-strongest offense in Japanese baseball behind the Seibu Lions and the Yomiuri Giants.
Second-year pitcher Satoshi Komatsu leads the pitching staff and has been unbeatable in recent weeks, going 5-0 in his last five starts and allowing just seven earned runs over his last 38 innings.
Komatsu hasn’t lost since July 21 and trails only Tohoku Rakuten’s Hisashi Iwakuma in Japanese baseball with a .833 winning percentage.
The Hammies have been here before and are on a roll, but the Buffs, who won the season series 13-11, will be at home with a powerful offense and a pitching staff that on most nights can make a lead hold up.
Can the Fighters keep up with the Buffaloes at the plate?
Despite their 17-run explosion in Sendai last week, the harsh reality is that through Tuesday the Fighters were 11th in the NPB in runs, team average and home runs.
Neither of the batters at the top of the order, Kensuke Tanaka and Hichori Morimoto, is batting above .300 and both have struggled against Orix at times this year. Yet it will be up to them to try and set the table for Atsunori Inaba, who has team highs in batting average (.301), RBIs (82) and homers (20) and is batting .329 against the Buffaloes this year.
Terrmel Sledge is a home run threat as well, but it’s unlikely Nippon Ham will slug its way into the second stage.
How much impact can Darvish have?
Win or lose, Darvish will probably be a big factor in the series. Should the Nippon Ham ace start and win Game 1, it would take a lot of pressure off the rest of the staff in the remaining games.
With a win, the Fighters can play with less pressure, knowing no matter what happens in Game 2 they will live to fight another day.
Despite its offensive shortcomings, Nippon Ham is more than capable of putting a couple of runs on the board, stealing a close game and heading off to Omiya and Tokorozawa to face Seibu next week.
With a loss, the Buffaloes can also play Game 2 with less pressure. More importantly, they can face the rest of the series knowing they won’t be seeing Darvish again.
The Buffs have talent on the mound as well in Komatsu, who posted a 15-3 mark with a 2.51 ERA this season. The second-year pitcher could be just the remedy the Buffs need to cancel out the effort of Nippon Ham’s ace.
Keys for Buffaloes?
For Orix to advance, it likely needs to continue doing what got it to this point. Since the All-Star break that’s basically been to just do a serviceable job on the mound and ride Rhodes and Cabrera as far as the Buffs can.
Rhodes is coming off his second consecutive 40-homer season and finished the campaign batting .277 with 118 RBIs. He was at his best against the Fighters this season, batting .321 with 11 homers and 25 RBIs against the Hokkaido club.
Even more troubling for the Fighters is that Cabrera’s best days were also at their expense. Cabrera batted a scorching .391 with nine homers, 22 RBIs and walked 16 times against the Fighters. He finished the year batting .315 overall with 36 homers and 104 RBIs.
The Buffaloes have other weapons, but if they have a Japan Series run up their sleeves it’s likely going to be their big guns that will carry them there.
Keys for Fighters?
Nippon Ham needs its pitchers to give it a chance in order to win the series. The Buffaloes have a high-powered offense, but in a short series good pitching can make the difference.
The Fighters likely have to keep the game close and cash in on the chances they get at the plate. Nippon Ham has been very good with the sacrifice bunt and can manufacture a few runs to back its pitching staff.
The Fighters’ hurlers have a 4.50 ERA in 24 games against the Buffs, their highest against any PL team, and are likely going to need to lower that mark in order to win two games in Osaka Dome.
Of their primary starters only Darvish, who was 2-0 with a 2.88 ERA against Orix, and Glynn (2-2, 2.97 against Orix) beat the Buffs twice this year.
The Fighters also have experience on their side as most of them were around for the 2006 and ’07 trips to the Japan Series.