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Lions poised to continue reign in Pacific League

by Jason Coskrey

The following is last of a two-part preview for the upcoming Nippon Professional Baseball season. Team-by-team previews of the six Pacific League clubs are listed in order of predicted finish.

SAITAMA SEIBU LIONS

Last season: First

The Japan Series Champions enter the 2009 season as the team to beat in Japanese baseball.

An overpowering presence at the plate carried the Lions to the title last season and could work wonders again this year.

The lineup should still be formidable, with the focus centered around Hiroyuki Nakajima, who batted .364 in 22 at-bats during the World Baseball Classic.

Yasuyuki Kataoka (.287, four home runs, 46 RBIs for Seibu in 2008) will continue to be the spark at the leadoff position and Takeya Nakamura (.244, 46 home runs, 101 RBIs) provides the power in the cleanup role.

The champs figure to be good on the mound as well, especially if staff ace Hideaki Wakui can bounce back from an 10-11 season during which he posted a 3.90 ERA.

Fellow starter Kazuyuki Hoashi is coming off the best season of his eight-year career and Japan Series MVP Takayuki Kishi rounds out a solid trio. Veterans Kazuhisa Ishii and Fumiya Nishiguchi also figure into the equation for the Lions.

CHIBA LOTTE MARINES

Last season: Fourth

The injury bug sidetracked the Marines early last season, but if Bobby Valentine’s club stays healthy a return to the playoffs could be in the cards.

Lotte’s lineup has the potential to be dangerous from top to bottom, but they’ll likely have to improve on last year’s league-high 4.14 team ERA.

The Marines caught a break on the hill when Naoyuki Shimizu decided to return and should feature in a solid rotation. The right-handed Shimizu has had a knack for winning games when the Marines need it most and was 13-9 last season.

Lotte will be looking for a bounce-back season from righty Hiroyuki Kobayashi, who went 5-12 in 2008, while Yoshihisa Naruse and Shunsuke Watanabe are each capable of double-digit wins.

Another key will be second-year hurler Yuki Karakawa, who was 5-4 with a 4.85 ERA, in an an up and down rookie season.

Among position players, Tadahito Iguchi joins the team after four years in the major leagues. He’ll be inserted into a lineup that will be electric at the top with Tsuyoshi Nishioka and bolstered by a healthy Tomoya Satozaki.

HOKKAIDO NIPPON HAM FIGHTERS

Last season: Third

The Fighters did things with smoke and mirrors last season, finishing third in the league despite scoring the fewest runs in the PL and being outscored by their opponents 541-533.

This season figures to be more of the same on Japan’s northern island unless highly touted youngster Sho Nakata finally shows up at the plate. Nakata was drafted with much fanfare then spent the season toiling in the minors.

Atsunori Inaba led the team in both average (.301) and homers (20), but the Hammies will be desperate for another productive presence at the plate.

As always, if the Fighters are to make another run into the playoffs it’ll be because of ace Yu Darvish and the pitching staff. Darvish (16-4, 1.88) has improved his wins total in each of the past four seasons (5, 12, 15, 16) and again figures to be among the NPB’s elite.

Behind him Brian Sweeney (12-5, 3.48), who has thrown well this spring, Masaru Takeda, Shugo Fujii and Kazuhito Tadano will be tasked with keeping the Fighters’ ship afloat.

FUKUOKA SOFTBANK HAWKS

Last season: Sixth

Murphy’s law reigned in Fukuoka last season where the perfect storm of sub-par performances, injuries and bad luck resulted in a 64-77 record and a last-place finish.

At the plate, the Hawks will fly as far as Nobuhiko Matsunaka’s bat can carry them. Matsunaka (.290, 25 home runs, 92 RBIs) didn’t look like his normal self at the end of last season, but still cuts an imposing figure in the box when healthy.

Second baseman Yuichi Honda is also having a good spring, batting .316, which should bring a smile to first-year manager Koji Akiyama’s face.

Another plus at the plate is the return of Munenori Kawasaki on the heels of an impressive showing a the WBC. The Beijing Olympics and injuries limited Kawasaki to 99 games last season.

Three spots in the Hawks’ rotation are in good hands with lefties Tsuyoshi Wada and Toshiya Sugiuchi and Kenji Otanari toeing the rubber.

A return to form by (right-hander) Nagisa Arakaki would be a welcome sight, as would a return by the injured Kazumi Saito to the hill. The Hawks may also have room to put second-year pitcher Shota Oba into the mix.

ORIX BUFFALOES

Last season: Second

The Buffaloes enjoyed a revival under manager Daijiro Oishi, who took over for Terry Collins in May, reaching the Climax Series. Oishi will attempt to keep the good times rolling in his first full season at the helm.

The Buffaloes have a young pitching core headed by PL Rookie of the Year Satoshi Komatsu, a 15-game winner last season. Oishi will also be depending on 25-year-olds Chihiro Kaneko and Kazuki Kondo and their continued development.

Orix added some pop to the lineup with the addition of Jose Fernandez, who joins veterans Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera. The Buffaloes’ triple shot of power has combined for nine homers, three each, during the preseason.

Tomotaka Sakaguchi is off to a good start as well, batting .349 with two homers during the spring, and could be more of a factor at the plate.

Orix also welcomes back Greg LaRocca, who missed most of 2008 with an injury.

TOHOKU RAKUTEN GOLDEN EAGLES

Last season: Fifth

Reigning MVP and Sawamura Award winning pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma is the main attraction and promises to again be one of the NPB’s best. However, last year’s fifth-place finish, despite Iwakuma’s league-leading 21 wins, shows he can’t shoulder the load alone.

Masahiro Tanaka’s numbers dipped after his rookie season in 2007, but the hard-throwing rightly remains the main line of defense behind Iwakuma.

Hideki Asai also returns, and the Eagles added former Yankee Darrell Rasner, but did little to address their numerous issues in the bullpen.

At the plate, the Eagles imported former Chunichi Dragons slugger Norihiro Nakamura to complement Fernando Seguignol in the lineup, but the shelf life on 40-year-old Takeshi Yamasaki will play a large part in their success.

Rick Short is a safe bet turn in another productive year, but the Eagles’ offensive firepower may not be enough on days Iwakuma isn’t on the mound.