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Giants, Dragons vie for Japan Series spot

by Jason Coskrey

The Chunichi Dragons took care of the Hanshin Tigers in Game 3 of the first stage of the Central League Climax Series on Monday only to run into the Yomiuri Giants in the second stage.

Chunichi looks little like the team that swept through the 2007 postseason en route to the Japan Series title. The Dragons usually play at their best against Yomiuri and will need to in order to advance.

The Giants will be combating the effects of a long layoff — as they did last season — but enter the series with an automatic 1-0 lead. The Kyojin were far and away the best team in the league in the second half of the season and are looking for revenge after last season’s second-stage failure against Chunichi.

Here are five questions heading into the series:

Can the Chunichi offense get going?

The Dragons got by the Tigers largely on the arms of pitchers Kenshin Kawakami and Kazuki Yoshimi.

Chunichi only managed seven runs in its three-game series against Hanshin and was blown away when the Tigers’ bats got going in Game 2.

It’s likely going to take a lot more against the Giants, especially with the series taking place at Tokyo Dome where Yomiuri scores in bunches.

Tyrone Woods (.273, two home runs, three RBIs in stage 1) and Hirokazu Ibata (.333, one RBI) were solid against the Tigers, while Masahiko Morino hit two home runs in stage 1.

Kazuhiro Wada and Norihiro Nakamura, who batted .182 against Hanshin, are going to have to join the chorus of run producers. Masahiro Araki and others will need to be better at the plate if the Dragons hope to keep up with Yomiuri’s high-powered offense.

Morino batted .348 against the Giants this season — although he hit just .222 at Tokyo Dome — with four homers and 10 RBIs and things likely start with him.

Wada was also good against Yomiuri (.337, two homers and 16 RBIs) and Woods is always a threat. The X-factors are Nakamura and leadoff man Lee Byung Kyu and how much they can produce at the plate.

How good is the Yomiuri lineup?

Earlier this season one CL pitcher referred to the Giants offense as a “nightmare” — and with good reason.

The Giants are extremely good at the plate and even better in Tokyo Dome.

Yomiuri was far and away the highest scoring team in the CL, leading the league with 631 runs and 177 homers.

Takanori Suzuki has been good at the leadoff spot and Nos. 3 and 4 hitters Michihiro Ogasawara (.310, 36 home runs and 96 RBIs) and Alex Ramirez (.319, 45 homers and 125 RBIs) are the most prolific duo in Japanese baseball. Five-hole batter Lee Seung Yeop got hot near the end of the year and poses a problem for opposing pitchers as well.

Without catcher Shinnosuke Abe, things are more manageable near the bottom of the order, but shortstop Hayato Sakamoto has shown a knack for coming up with clutch hits in big games.

There’s no relief on the bench either with Yoshinobu Takahashi, Yoshiyuki Kamei and Yoshitomo Tani and others at manager Tatsunori Hara’s disposal.

How big is Abe’s absence?

Not having Giants catcher Shinnosuke Abe on the field will be one of the few advantages the Dragons will have entering the series.

Yomiuri will still send a star-studded lineup to the plate, but losing Abe will create a void his replacement won’t be able to fill.

Also the Yomiuri captain is a veteran who has been in this position before and has valuable experience working with the Giants’ pitchers.

Conversely, the Giants have played a number of games without Abe, who missed time early in the season with an injury and then left for Olympic duty in August. They didn’t play particularly well during those periods but should be used to playing without him.

Can the Dragons win?

The Nagoya club ran into a reeling Hanshin squad that was fresh off not only losing the CL title but was also dealing with the distraction of manager Akinobu Okada’s announcement of his resignation due to the team’s second-half collapse.

The Giants’ story line is the exact opposite. Yomiuri was the best team in Japanese baseball over the second half of the year and should be extremely confident heading into the series.

But as Chunichi slugger Tyrone Woods said before the playoffs began, “everybody is 0-0 now.”

On paper, the Dragons had no business going on the road and defeating the Tigers. Which of course, is exactly what they did.

The Giants’ one-game advantage means Chunichi will be fighting an uphill battle from the start but the defending champion has enough talent on the roster to get the job done.

There are no accidents in October. A team still playing at this time of year its capable of beating anybody.

Which pitching staff will come up bigger?

Lost in the hoopla surrounding home runs and All-Star batters is this fact: The Giants finished second in the CL in team ERA.

Seth Greisinger led the league in wins (17) for the second straight year, including a 4-1 mark against the Dragons. Tetsuya Utsumi also reached double-digit victories this season, and it appears Koji Uehara has put his early season troubles behind him and is churning out quality starts again.

Tetsuya Yamaguchi was one of the best middle relievers in Japanese baseball and ended up winning 11 games for the Kyojin, while closer Marc Kroon set a franchise record with his league-best 41 saves.

The Dragons only scored three runs against Hanshin’s starters and could run into similar trouble in this series, although they have owned Utsumi (0-5, 5.83 ERA in five starts) this season.

Chunichi will counter with Kenshin Kawakami, who pitched Saturday and is unlikely to start Game 1, and hope it gets enough from everyone else to get the game to Hitoki Iwase.

Veteran Masahiro Yamamoto had a solid season, going 11-7 with a 3.16 ERA, and may get the ball in the opening game. First-stage hero Kazuki Yoshimi won 10 games this year, but it would take a win or two before he’s ready to go after pitching eight innings against the Tigers on Monday.

The Dragons may not bring much to the table on paper, but manager Hiromitsu Ochiai has been able to coax superb outings of his staff on the big stage in recent years.