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Schedule packed for Golden Week; interleague next

by Wayne Graczyk

Ah, Golden Week, when the weather is warm and windy, the koi nobori carp streamers are flying and Japan’s ballparks are full with spectators from Showa Day on Thursday through Children’s Day on May 5. I have said it before; if every week was Golden Week, Japanese pro baseball would never have an attendance problem.

This week also marks a point roughly five weeks into the schedule where trends have been established by teams and individual players, indicating what kind of a season they are going to have.

Former Hankyu Braves and Daiei Hawks (1983-1992) slugger and Pacific League MVP Boomer Wells used to say, “If I have 10 home runs by Golden Week, I know I’m doing OK.”

Current Yomiuri Giants cleanup hitter Alex Ramirez had nine homers prior to the start of this year’s GW, giving him 296 in his 10-year career in the Central League. Ramirez’s goal is to hit No. 300 this Wednesday at Tokyo Dome against his former Yakult Swallows teammates and in front of a packed house with lots of youngsters on Kids Day.

Rami also marked his 1,000th lifetime-in-Japan RBI last month but is still a distance away from the all-time foreign player records of 464 home runs and 1,269 RBIs, compiled by Tuffy Rhodes.

The 12 Central and Pacific League teams are playing nine consecutive games without a break during Golden Week, in action every day from Tuesday through May 5 with a mixture of afternoon games and nighters.

The defending Pa League champion Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters have to be the No. 1 disappointing team so far in 2010. Their lineup, void of katakana symbols indicating foreign names, has a serious lack of punch, and the team is dead last in the PL standings through games of Wednesday, four games behind the fifth-place Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and 11 1/2 games out of first place.

Nippon Ham’s team batting average as of Thursday was .247, and the club has hit only 14 home runs, both low figures among Pacific League teams. The Fighters lost slugger Terrmel Sledge to the Yokohama BayStars and, for whatever reason, they have not signed a gaikokujin replacement.

I would be surprised if the Nippon Ham club is not looking right now for a guy in North America who could step in and provide the missing ingredient, and I would bet the Fighters will acquire someone this month.

Meanwhile, former Yakult Swallows and Yomiuri Giants slugger Roberto Petagine was to have officially joined the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks on Sunday, and Japan’s five-week long interleague season begins on May 12.

The interleague period is the wild card in the NPB schedule, where teams such as the Fighters who struggled during the first month and a half of the season can suddenly come alive and make up some ground while others, flying high against opponents in their own league, can go south in a hurry if not properly prepared.

Each club plays a couple of two-game series, one home and one away, against the six teams in the opposite league. The printed schedule indicates the koryu (Japanese for interleague) games will conclude on June 13, but the period of June 14-17 is when rainouts may be made up, so the interleague season will be complete before regular games between same-league opponents resume on June 18.

This will be the sixth year for interleague play in Japan, and the interleague season title sponsor is the Nippon Life Insurance Company (NISSAY). The team with the best record will be crowned the Nippon Seimei Koryu-sen champion for 2010.

Finally this week, they may not have Golden Week in the U.S., but the New York Mets struck gold recently, riding an eight-game winning streak that helped carry them from last place to first in the National League East Division. Ex-Yomiuri Giants lefty pitcher Hisanori Takahashi has notched a couple of victories during that streak.

After a poor start, the Mets in mid-April quickly became the subject of several media articles and commentaries criticizing manager Jerry Manuel and general manager Omar Minaya, with some predicting the imminent ouster of both.

At least one piece reminded readers of the availability of Bobby Valentine, former Mets and Chiba Lotte Marines manager currently working as a TV analyst for ESPN, as a potential replacement for Manuel. As long as the Mets continue to play winning baseball, though, the critics will remain silent, and Valentine will continue his work on TV.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com