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Giants, Fighters ready to rumble in Japan Series

by Jason Coskrey

The stage is set for the 2009 Japan Series.

The Yomiuri Giants spent virtually the entire season in first place in the Central League, steamrolling their way to the title series in their typical bullish fashion.

From the Pacific League comes the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, who are beginning to make a habit out of playing for championships.

The Fighters lost their biggest star on the mound but discovered another at the plate during the PL Climax Series as they participate in Japan’s version of the Fall Classic for the third time in four seasons.

The teams square off in Game 1 of the Japan Series on Saturday at Sapporo Dome.

Here are a few questions ahead of the series:

Will Yu Darvish pitch?

Nippon Ham’s ace had a bullpen session earlier in the week, but the prevailing opinion seems to be that his season is over. Darvish is Japan’s premier pitcher and the Fighters are wisely not willing to risk the 23-year-old’s future to win the Japan Series.

Darvish wrote on his blog that he’s going to do whatever it takes, but it doesn’t appear likely that he will pitch. Fighters manager Masataka Nashida said he’s prepared to go through the series without his ace.

The Fighters won the PLCS against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles with Masaru Takeda, Keisaku Itokazu, Tomoya Yagi and Shugo Fujii, who will all have to step up again against the Giants.

How do the offenses stack up?

Nippon Ham scored the most runs (689) in Japanese baseball this year despite finishing ninth overall in home runs.

The Fighters have good hitters at the top of the order in Kensuke Tanaka and Hichori Morimoto, who batted .375 and .467, respectively, in the PLCS, with power hitters Atsunori Inaba and Terrmel Sledge lurking later in the lineup.

Nippon Ham is unusually strong at the bottom of the order with Makoto Kaneko batting .304 (.360 with runners in scoring position) there this season. He’ll get bumped up in the lineup on the road due to the lack of the designated hitter in the Central League parks, but should still have an opportunity to make an impact.

Eiichi Koyano and Yoshio Itoi had subpar performances against Rakuten, but will bolster the Fighters’ chances if they can get it going.

The Giants, meanwhile, are built for power and so loaded that Shinnosuke Abe hit 32 home runs this season and is batting seventh. Michihiro Ogasawara and Alex Ramirez joined Abe in the 30-homer club (31 each) and both topped 100 RBIs.

Complementing that trio is Yoshiyuki Kamei, who hit 25 homers and drove in 71 runs in the five-hole, and the ever-dangerous Yoshitomo Tani, who bats sixth.

Key players for Nippon Ham?

At the moment the Fighters’ attack starts with Sledge, who personally carried them past the Eagles, batting .400 with two home runs and 10 RBIs.

Inaba batted .429 against Rakuten and is consistently one of Japan’s top hitters. Inaba’s presence could loom especially large on the road after he hit .359 with five homers and eight RBIs in 10 games at Tokyo Dome this season.

On the mound, if the Fighters stay with their Climax Series rotation, the onus will be on Yagi, Fujii and Brian Sweeney, the likely starting trio for Games 3, 4 and 5.

As powerful as the Giants’ offense is normally, it’s even better at home. So the Fighters could be in for a long night if their pitchers aren’t on top of their game.

Fujii gave up four runs against the Giants during his only start at the Big Egg in June.

Yagi posted a 0.69 ERA in a pair of PL starts in the Big Egg, while Sweeney gave up four runs in 5 1/3 innings in his only start (a victory) there.

Key players for Yomiuri?

Leadoff man Hayato Sakamoto (.306, 62 RBIs in the regular season) and No. 2 hitter Tetsuya Matsumoto (.293, 109 hits) have a chance to play a big role in deciding the series by getting on base consistently to set the table for the Yomiuri sluggers.

Sakamoto is a dangerous hitter in his own right, with 33 doubles and 18 homers. Matsumoto won’t require the same amount of attention but can effectively advance runners or get on base and utilize his speed.

The Giants’ dynamic duo of ex-Fighters star Ogasawara and Ramirez is also a concern.

They may be the most fearsome combination in Japanese baseball, combining for 62 homers and 210 RBIs (107 for Ogasawara and 103 for Ramirez) this year.

Among the Yomiuri pitchers, reliever Tetsuya Yamaguchi is the Giants’ late-game problem solver. Yamaguchi posted a 1.27 ERA in 78 innings with right-handers hitting .176 against him and lefties batting .239.

Yamaguchi is valued both for his ability to preserve a slim lead for closer Marc Kroon and for showing the poise to inherit a jam and pitch his way out of it.

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Visit The Japan Times’ Web site for expanded coverage of the Japan Series.