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NPB champion Lions aim for Asian crown

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The Seibu Lions have already proven they are the best team in Japan.

Now it’s time to see if they’re the kings of the Asian jungle as well.

Saitama’s favorite Lions will face the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions of Taiwan, the Tianjin Lions of China and Korea’s SK Wyverns in latest edition of the Asia Series, which begins on Thursday at Tokyo Dome.

The tournament was nearly an all-Lions affair. The Samsung Lions came up short in the Korean Baseball Organization playoffs, however, falling to the Doosan Bears.

Seibu will try to become the fourth consecutive Japanese team to win the Asia Series, following the Chiba Lotte Marines in 2005, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in 2006 and the Chunichi Dragons last season.

“The Japanese team has won each of the Asian Series titles,” Seibu manager Hisanobu Watanabe said during a news conference on Tuesday. “But that doesn’t mean it will be easy to win the championship.”

The Lions will be without star shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima and catcher Toru Hosokawa, neither of whom were named to the team’s official roster for the tournament. Both suffered injuries during the Lions’ Japan Series win over the Yomiuri Giants, which would have made it difficult for them to compete.

Among other players also missing are closer Alex Graman and pitcher Kazuhisa Ishii.

The Wyverns of the Korean Baseball Organization return after narrowly missing out on the title last season. The Wyverns opened the 2007 Asia Series with an upset of the Dragons — the first time the NPB champion had suffered a loss in the tournament which began in 2005.

SK lost 6-5 to the Dragons in their final-round rematch after allowing the go-ahead run in the ninth inning.

The Wyverns broke the KBO single-season record for wins this year with an 82-40 regular-season mark. They lost the first game of the Korean Series against the Bears, then won four straight to claim their second straight title.

SK is led by Korean Series MVP third baseman Jung Choi, who batted .328 and stole 19 bases this season.

Also returning is second-year pitcher Kim Kwang Hyun. Kim was the driving force behind the team’s victory over the Dragons last season, pitching 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball with five strikeouts. He led the KBO in wins (16) and finished second in ERA (2.47) this season in the KBO.

The Uni-President Lions also return on the heels of their second consecutive domestic title. The Lions defeated the Brother Elephants in a tight seven-game series to win the Chinese Professional Baseball League title for the second straight season.

Lions pitcher Luther Hackman threw 17 shutout innings during the Taiwan Series to take home MVP honors.

Watanabe is no stranger to Taiwanese baseball himself, having been named the Taiwan Major League MVP in 1999 after going 18-7 with a 2.34 ERA and 201 strikeouts and leading the league in all three pitching categories.

The Tianjin Lions have won the past three Chinese Baseball League titles and will be the first CBL team to play in the Asian tournament. China was previously represented by its national team.

The 2008 Asia Series kicks off at Tokyo Dome at noon on Thursday. The first game will be between the Uni-President Lions and Tianjin Lions. Seibu and SK will play in the night game, scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.

Arai up for post

Kyodo News

Hanshin Tigers infielder Takahiro Arai is set to take over from Shinya Miyamoto as the Nippon Professional Baseball players association president, it was learned Tuesday.

According to association sources, Yomiuri Giants outfielder Yoshinobu Takahashi had been considered as a candidate, but with his injuries and other factors in mind, it was decided that Arai, a popular figure among the players, would be the best man for the job.

Arai becomes the second Hanshin representative to head the association after Akinobu Okada, who recently stepped down as the Tigers’ manager.

The 31-year-old Arai’s appointment will be formalized at the association’s general assembly meeting in Osaka on Dec. 4.

“I was asked by Miyamoto-san (to take over). He is a person I respect,” Arai said.