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Lions prepare for trip into uncharted waters

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The Seibu Lions and SK Wyverns went through the final preparations for their matchup in the 2008 edition of the Asia Series during a pair of brief practices on Wednesday at Tokyo Dome.

“Japanese teams have won (all) three times in this Asia Series,” Seibu manager Hisanobu Watanabe said. “As the Japanese representative, we’ll do our best to win this year as well, and raise the level of baseball in Asia through this tournament.”

The Lions will open their Asia Series campaign at Tokyo Dome on Thursday at 6 p.m. against an unfamiliar opponent in the Wyverns, who hail from the Korean Baseball Organization.

“They’ve won in the Korean Series two years in a row, so they have real potential,” Watanabe said. “I also have the impression that they have one great pitcher,” he added, referring to KBO MVP Kim Kwang Hyun.

Seibu’s probable starting pitcher, Kazuyuki Hoashi, was also mostly in the dark about the Lions’ first opponent.

“I’ve been focusing on Japanese baseball and honestly can’t say I have any impression, except that it is a team and Hajime Kato-san is there,” Hoashi said.

Kato, who is a coach for SK, pitched for the Nishitetsu Lions and Taiheyo Club Lions, both precursors to the current Seibu club, but spent most of his 19-year playing career with the Yomiuri Giants.

“I’ll be the starter . . . I mean, if I was the starter tomorrow, I’d go inside utilizing my breaking balls,” Hoashi said.

“As the manager mentioned, Japanese teams have won three tournaments. Tough battles will begin tomorrow, but once we play, we have to win and play to become Asia’s best.”

Seibu enters the competition fresh off a title-clinching Game 7 win over the Yomiuri Giants in the Japan Series on Sunday. The Wyverns, meanwhile, haven’t played since defeating the Doosan Bears in Game 5 of the Korean Series on Oct. 31. SK won that series 4-1.

“We haven’t played in about half a month,” infielder Kim Jae Hyun said. “So I’m a little worried about our playing condition. But of course, we will do our best to advance to the final.”

The Lions will be without Pacific League MVP candidate Hiroyuki Nakajima, who is recovering from an injury suffered in the Japan Series, and catcher Toru Hosokawa during the four-day tournament.

The Lions are still the tournament favorite with PL home-run king Takeya Nakamura on board and a pitching staff led by ace Hideaki Wakui and Japan Series MVP Takayuki Kishi.

“Before our practice we had a meeting with our team of analysts,” SK pitcher Cho Woong Chun said. “We noticed that Seibu is a similar team to SK. Including the leadoff guy, they have a lot of fast players and their No. 3 and 4 batters can hit home runs. That something we have to worry about.”

The Wyverns upset the Chunichi Dragons in their opening game in last season’s Asia Series. SK advanced to the final but finished in second place after losing 6-5 in a rematch against the Dragons.

“Last year in this place I made comments on our team after we lost,” manager Kim Sung Kun said. “The next day I had a meeting with my coaches and we said we wanted to make it back here.

“Last year we lost a game we could’ve won,” Kim said referring to the final. “So, this year we would like to win the whole thing.”

The series represents the final goal in a very successful season for the two-time defending KBO champions.

“Last year we lost in this series,” pitcher Cho said. “This year we set goals — to win the regular season then the Korean Series and then this Asia Series. We’ve come here to achieve the third goal.”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this story

CL posts schedule

Kyodo News

The Central League announced Wednesday the schedule for its 2009 regular season, which will open on April 3 and feature a 144-game format, including 24 games in interleague play.

The top three teams of the 2007 season will host the opening series on April 3-5, with the Yomiuri Giants meeting the Hiroshima Carp at Tokyo Dome, the Chunichi Dragons taking on the Yokohama BayStars at Nagoya Dome and the Hanshin Tigers facing the Yakult Swallows at Kyocera Dome.