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Skippers Hara, Watanabe ready to match wits on diamond

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It was a business-like atmosphere at Tokyo Dome on Friday afternoon as the Seibu Lions and Yomiuri Giants went through their final preparations for Game 1 of the Japan Series.

“The team’s condition is good and the players are excited about the Japan Series,” Lions manager Hisanobu Watanabe said. “I am especially excited because it’s my first Series as manager.”

Watanabe guided his young Lions to the Pacific League title in his first year at the helm before dethroning the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the playoffs to earn the PL Climax Series title.

“There is more pressure in the Japan Series than in the Climax Series and more pressure in the Climax Series than the regular season,” Watanabe said. “But we came through in the regular season and Climax Series OK and we expect to come through in the Japan Series.”

Led by Watanabe and MVP candidate Hiroyuki Nakajima, the Lions had a dominating 2008 campaign, behind the top offense in Japanese baseball, erasing the memories of last season’s fifth-place finish.

“Obviously they have a good team,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said of Seibu. “They won the PL. They have a young, very talented, smart manager. They have a lot of speed and power and an all-around, well-balanced team.”

The Lions took the season series from the Giants 3-1, outscoring the Kyojin 23-10 in the process. Yomiuri was without a few of its key players in that series and is eager to face the Lions at almost full strength.

“At that time, they had G.G. (Sato) and they had (Craig) Brazell and they were really hot at that time,” Giants slugger Alex Ramirez said of the interleague series against Seibu. “It looked like everything they did was good and our team wasn’t really complete.

“So now, we have the team that everybody expected and they have a couple of guys who are hurt. We’re going to face those guys loaded, with the team we wanted to be. We’re going to do our best.”

Yomiuri won’t be fully loaded, however, as catcher Shinnosuke Abe’s shoulder injury will limit him to the role of a pinch hitter or designated hitter.

“The team’s condition is good except for the difficult situation we have with Abe,” Hara said. “But Abe will be on the bench.”

The Lions also enter the championship round in relatively good shape.

“Our pitchers and position players got a little better than we were during the Climax Series,” Watanabe said. “Brazell and G.G. didn’t play in the Climax Series. Except for those two, we are in good shape.”

With the firepower both teams bring to the table, starting pitching figures to take on an even more important role during the series.

“They’ve got a good lineup,” Giants closer Marc Kroon said of the Lions. “They have a lot of power in that lineup. I think (with) their lineup and our lineup, playing in this dome, there might be quite a few runs being scored.”

Both managers admitted to having already decided on their Game 1 starters but neither would reveal his choice.

Although PL clubs announce their starters the day before a game, the teams are not required to reveal their pitchers in the Japan Series.

“I have decided who will be the pitchers in Games 1, 2, and 3, but I am not going to say their names,” Hara said. “There will be nine pitchers on the bench tomorrow, so there might be a hint in there.”

The last time these teams met in the Japan Series was in 2002. That season, first-year manager Hara led the Kyojin to a four-game sweep of the Lions, who were led by current Yomiuri head coach Haruki Ihara.

Hara played down the chance of a repeat of that result.

“The sweep would be very difficult this time,” Hara said. “We’ll take it one game at a time and hope for a good ending and a victory in the Series.”

Watanabe will be trying to equal Hara’s feat of winning a title in his first season, but understands Seibu’s regular-season success against Yomiuri doesn’t mean much.

“We played well against them in interleague,” Watanabe said. “But the Giants are a different team now than they were in the spring. They are a strong team with a lot of good players.

“Our players have played well all year. So we will keep trying to play our game and look for a successful series.”