Offense was the name of the game for both the Seibu Lions and Yomiuri Giants this season.
Hisanobu Watanabe’s Lions hit the ground running back in March and virtually went wire-to-wire to win the Pacific League title. Seibu advanced to its first Japan Series since 2004 behind Japanese baseball’s strongest offense, leading both leagues in runs (715) and home runs (198) and finishing third in team batting average (.270).
Ironically, in the Japan Series the Lions meet the only Central League team capable of going run-for-run and homer-for-homer with them in the Giants, who scored 631 runs and hit 177 home runs this season.
Yomiuri’s path to the series began with a shocking streak of bad play, but culminated with its domination of the CL in the second half of the season.
The two franchises are no strangers to each other in Japan Series action and will renew their rivalry in a matchup of league champions that could light up the scoreboards beginning Saturday night at Tokyo Dome.
Here are five key questions before the series begins:
How will the starting pitchers hold up?
Seibu’s Kazuhisa Ishii and Hideaki Wakui closed out the PL Climax Series with brilliant performances and will have to do it again against the Giants.
Ishii harkened back to his glory days with 13 strikeouts in a Game 4 win and Wakui, who has a 0.60 ERA in two playoff games, was perfect for 6 2/3 innings of a three-hit shutout in Game 5.
The Lions took their lumps against some good lineups in the Pa League, but still put up decent numbers with double-digit winners in righties Takayuki Kishi (12-4, 3.42 ERA in the regular season) and Wakui (10-11, 3.90), as well as left-handers Kazuyuki Hoashi (11-6, 2.63) and Ishii (11-10, 4.32).
The Giants counter with 17-game winner Seth Greisinger and a dependable No. 2 man, the 12-8 Tetsuya Utsumi.
Greisinger (17-9), had a rough time against the Lions this year (0-2, 14.00 ERA) and it should be interesting to see how things go in this series.
The Kyojin have been rumored to be toying with the idea of handing the ball to Koji Uehara in Game 1. Uehara (6-5) struggled early this year but has recently begun to resemble his old self.
The Yomiuri hurler’s forkball is working effectively again and he could give the Seibu lineup, who will see him for the first time this year, a lot of trouble.
Uehara, who started Game 1 of the 2002 Series against the Lions, is 5-1 with a 2.78 ERA and two holds in nine appearances at Tokyo Dome this year. Which gives the Giants another appetizing reason to give him the nod.
How good are the Lions?
After stumbling into the playoffs, Hisanobu Watanabe has Seibu roaring again.
The offense is clicking with Taketoshi Goto and Shogo Akada joining usual suspects Hiroyuki Nakajima and Takeya Nakamura in powering the Lions past the Fighters in the Climax Series.
Goto has been the pacesetter, batting .316 with two homers and eight RBIs against the Fighters, and could pose problems for the Giants.
The downside is he spent most of his time at designated hitter. So Seibu will probably be without its hottest bat for the majority of Games 1 and 2 and a possible Game 6 or 7 at Tokyo Dome where there will be no DH.
The upside is the Lions have many other weapons on a team loaded on offense. With a split at Tokyo Dome, the Lions would return to the land of the DH fully loaded with a chance to win the Series.
Which offensive duo will shine brightest?
Seibu has a productive 1-2 punch in Hiroyuki Nakajima and Takeya Nakamura. Nakajima is an MVP candidate after batting .331 with 21 homers and 81 RBIs. He batted .286 and drove in six runs against Hokkaido Nippon Ham.
Nakamura had a pedestrian Climax Series but hit a league-high 46 home runs with 101 RBIs in the regular season.
They’re good but Yomiuri sluggers Michihiro Ogasawara and Alex Ramirez are on another level.
Ogasawara was last season’s CL MVP, had another solid season this year (.310, 36 home runs and 96 RBIs) and poses an immediate threat sitting third in the order.
Ramirez may well be this season’s MVP after a stellar campaign (.319, 45 homers and 125 RBIs). He kept it going in the playoffs, hitting .438 with a pair of home runs and five RBIs en route to being named the CL Climax Series MVP.
How do the bullpens stack up?
With so much offense flying around, the bullpens could play a huge role.
The Lions have a capable group led by lefty Tomoki Hoshino, who finished the year with a 2.38 ERA in 63 appearances and led the team with 25 holds. Right-hander Shinya Okamoto has put up decent numbers, as have Eiji Shotsu and Chikara Onodera. They will be tasked with setting the table for closer Alex Graman.
The Giants counter with Tetsuya Yamaguchi, who won 11 games and was second on the team with 23 holds. Daisuke Ochi, Soichi Fujita and Kiyoshi Toyoda will also play prominent roles in getting the ball to closer Marc Kroon.
Manager Tatsunori Hara also has Kentaro Nishimura, who has been an effective rally-killer at times, waiting in the wings.
Who do the Giants turn to after Game 3?
Greisinger, Utsumi and Uehara, in some order, will likely start the first three games for Yomiuri.
Beyond that, the Giants will have to find arms.
The most likely candidate is Hisanori Takahashi, who was on the hill for the deciding Game 4 of the second stage of the Climax Series against Chunichi. The Giants hurler has been hampered by injuries, but looked very good for seven innings in that game. Takahashi will need to bring his “A-game” to Seibu Dome to keep the Lions caged.