The Seibu Lions bounced back from their worst season in more than two decades last season with a Pacific League championship this season. They had no equal at the plate in the Pa League this year and are ready to roar in the second stage of the PL Climax Series.
The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters finished third in the league and 9-14 against Seibu this year, but have gotten hot at just the right time. Nippon Ham is 9-1 since Sept. 21 and have the game’s best pitcher in Yu Darvish an and hot bat in Terrmel Sledge.
Here are five questions ahead of the series:
What kind of shape is Seibu in?
The Lions were the league’s strongest team for the entire season before faltering down the stretch. Seibu won the PL title despite ending the season by losing eight of its last nine games, five of those losses coming at Seibu Dome. The Lions also have lost five of their last seven against Nippon Ham.
Not helping matters is that they are coming off a lengthy layoff only to run into a red-hot Fighters club.
Takeya Nakamura led the league in homers (46) and finished with 101 RBIs, Yasuyuki Kataoka was the leader in steals (50) and MVP candidate Hiroyuki Nakajima (.331, 21 homers, 87 RBIs) and Takumi Kuriyama (.317, 11, 72) were among the league leaders in batting average.
Ace Hideaki Wakui (10-11, 3.90 ERA) saw his numbers dip sharply from 2007 but was solid against Nippon Ham this year (3-1, 2.75 in five starts).
Takayuki Kishi led the Lions with 12 wins and posted two wins and a 2.68 ERA in six games against the Fighters this season.
Kazuki Hoashi (11-6, 2.63) and Kazuhisa Ishii (11-10, 4.32) also posted double-digit wins this season.
How big is the one-game advantage?
It could be a huge factor in the series. A win in Game 1 gives the Lions a quick 2-0 lead to go along with home-field advantage. Being down a pair of games on the road could drastically alter Fighters manager Masataka Nashida’s game plan as opposed to if his club trailed by one game following a Game 1 loss.
The lead also dampens the blow should the Lions lose the first game of the series. They’ll be playing for the win of course, but a loss would simply tie series as opposed to putting them into an early hole.
Can the Fighters tame the Lions’ offense?
Seibu’s strength this season has been at the plate. The Lions finished first in Japanese baseball in runs (715) and home runs (198) and third in team batting average (.270).
The Lions are an offensive juggernaut, starting with PL home run king Nakamura.
There’s a significant dropoff in the power numbers after Nakamura, but Hiroyuki Nakajima and G.G. Sato (.302, 21, 81) are formidable as well.
Craig Brazell also chipped in with 27 homers in 130 games.
Seibu’s offense makes it an overwhelming favorite in the series, but the Lions will be playing against the effects of the long layoff and a very good Nippon Ham pitching staff.
Can the Lions stop the Fighters?
A quick glance at the regular-season stats — Nippon Ham finished at or near the bottom in a number of offensive categories — and the above seems like a no-brainer.
Those numbers haven’t accounted for much lately, however, as the Fighters have been on fire at the plate.
Nippon Ham has outscored its opponents 62-19 since Sept. 21 and is coming off a seven-run, 13-hit performance in Game 2 of the first stage of the playoffs.
The Fighters, who finished last in Japanese baseball with 82 home runs, have also found their home run stroke during that stretch, connecting for 10-homers over the 12-game period.
Terrmel Sledge, who has been hot lately, has accounted for four of those longballs.
Who will be the key for the Fighters?
The Lions are one of the NPB’s strongest teams, but the turning point in the series could very well come down to a Fighters pitcher.
Nashida said earlier this week that Ryan Glynn would get the start in Game 1 instead of ace Yu Darvish, who pitched against Orix on Saturday.
The first game of a series is always an important affair, but the Lions’ automatic one-game lead makes it mean that much more.
Glynn got off to a shaky start this season but has rebounded with a strong second half.