After a long layoff, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters will return to the diamond on Wednesday in the second stage of the Pacific League Climax Series.
They’ll do it with an automatic one-game advantage, but without injured pitcher Yu Darvish.
While Darvish will be missing, Atsunori Inaba and Japan’s top offense will be in the spotlight as the Fighters aim for their second Climax Series championship in three seasons.
Unlike the Fighters, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles have all their stars perfectly aligned with pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka dominating on the mound and slugger Takeshi Yamasaki coming through at the plate.
Here are five questions ahead of the series:
What is the Darvish factor?
Darvish is Japanese baseball’s premier pitcher and is expected to miss the entire series, a big loss for Nippon Ham.
The Fighters ace was 15-5 with a 1.73 ERA in 2009. He finished the year with a 8.26 strikeout per nine innings ratio and a .8956 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched).
There aren’t many players who can make up for that type of production, but the focus will be on Masaru Takeda, Tomoya Yagi, Shugo Fujii and the rest of the pitching staff to carry the team through the series.
Who is Nippon Ham’s next best option?
In this series, it’s Takeda (10-9, 3.55 ERA).
Among Nippon Ham’s pitchers, no one had a better year against Rakuten than Takeda. The right-hander was 5-1 with a 2.00 ERA in six starts against the Eagles.
Takeda has also been extremely reliable at home, posting a 7-1 record and a 2.88 ERA in 11 games at Sapporo Dome.
Tomoya Yagi should also have something to say in the outcome of the series. Yagi may have been Nippon Ham’s second-best hurler this season, going 9-3 with a 2.88 ERA in 20 starts, though his numbers against Rakuten (2-1, 3.91 ERA) were nothing special.
Keisaku Itokazu, who threw six innings of one-run ball in his only start against Rakuten this season, is also expected to take the mound early in the series.
How good is the Fighters’ offense?
In the past, losing Darvish would’ve been crippling. But the Fighters have finally gotten their offense on track, which should soften the blow.
No NPB team finished with a higher batting average (.278) or scored more runs (689) than the Fighters.
Terrmel Sledge, Inaba and Eiichi Koyano were the big hitters this year, driving in 88, 85, and 82 runs, respectively.
Sledge’s 27 homers led the team and the consistent Inaba hit .300 and cranked out 17 home runs.
Yoshio Itoi played in 131 games and batted .306 with 15 homers, giving manager Masataka Nashida another skilled bat to work with.
Makoto Kaneko also turned in a big season at the bottom of the order, batting .304 with 14 home runs and 66 RBIs.
Can Iwakuma and Tanaka do it again?
The odds are against another pair of complete-game victories from the Rakuten stars but they are a dynamic duo.
Iwakuma had mixed results against Nippon Ham this season, going 2-1 but posting a 3.86 ERA in the process.
The Fighters led the PL in runs but they aren’t really a home run-hitting team. So facing a pitcher with Iwakuma’s repertoire and control could be a tall task for their lineup.
The real problem, however, is Tanaka.
The young hurler faced the Fighters three times this season, finishing 3-0 with a 1.88 ERA. He allowed just five runs and struck out 20 batters in 24 innings against the regular-season champions.
What kind of shape is Rakuten’s offense in?
The Eagles have to be oozing confidence after manhandling one of Japan’s top pitchers, Toshiya Sugiuchi, and overcoming a solid performance by D.J. Houlton in the first round.
Aging slugger Yamasaki led the way with a pair of homers and four RBIs and Teppei Tsuchiya batted .500 with an RBI over the two-game series. Yosuke Takasu hit .333 against the Hawks and gets things going at the top of the order while Fernando Seguignol is a home run threat batting fifth.
The Eagles are good on the basepaths as well and adept at taking the extra base when the opportunity arises.