For a team that looked like the best in the Pacific League for most of the season, uncertainty has set in for the Seibu Lions at the absolute worst time.
Ace pitcher Hideaki Wakui is struggling, hurler Takayuki Kishi is working his way back from an injury and the rest of the rotation has underachieved down the stretch.
So it could be a bad time to play host to the Chiba Lotte Marines, who, when they’re clicking, can score in bunches and features a terrific leadoff man in Tsuyoshi Nishioka and all-around threats in Tadahito Iguchi and Toshiaki Imae. The series begins on Saturday.
The Marines, meanwhile, have shaken free from the bad memories of their controversial 2009 campaign but they have questions of their own.
They burst out of the gate with one of the NPB’s top offenses and a very good cadre of pitchers. Lotte’s production has tapered off on the mound in the second half of the season, which may mean trouble against Seibu slugger Takeya Nakamura, the ever-dangerous Hiroyuki Nakajima, Jose Fernandez and a group of hitters ready to roar in October.
Here are five questions ahead of the first stage of the Pacific League Climax Series:
Can the Lions get Hideaki Wakui back on track?
Wakui has struggled for much of the past two months, his lone great performance coming in a win against the Marines on Sept. 11. Wakui threw seven innings of one-run ball in that contest, his last win, and struck out five.
He’s gone back to the drawing board with manager Hisanobu Watanabe, formerly an accomplished hurler in his own right for the Lions, in an effort to right the ship in the postseason.
Lions fans can take heart that he’s been excellent at home this season, going 9-3 with a 2.82 ERA in 13 starts at Seibu Dome. The Lotte lineup is flush with right-handed hitters and righties hit .246 with 90 strikeouts against Wakui this year. So a return to form isn’t out of the question.
What kind of shape are the Lions in?
The Lions have had health issues in key places, at different points of the season losing slugger Takeya Nakamura, pitcher Takayuki Kishi and second baseman Yasuyuki Kataoka, among others.
Nakamura is back and Kishi made his return near the end of the year. The primary concern now is how much Kataoka, who hit .295 and had 59 stolen bases, can contribute after injuring his right calf on Sept. 20.
The Lions didn’t do themselves any favors by losing their grip on the pennant — which would’ve delayed their playoff opener until Oct. 14. Nakamura is nearly all the way back, but the effectiveness of Kishi and Kataoka, if he plays, will be something to watch.
Can the offense carry the Marines?
The Marines scored 708 runs and finished the season with a .275 team batting average, second only to the Hanshin Tigers in both categories.
Leadoff man Tsuyoshi Nishioka set the tone with a .346 average, 79 walks and a .423 on-base percentage. Tadahito Iguchi is lurking further down the lineup with the fifth-highest OBP (.412) in the NPB, a .294 average and 103 RBIs.
Toshiaki Imae (.331, 10 home runs, 77 RBIs) is another threat, Saburo Omura has proven he can come through in the clutch and sluggers Kim Tae Kyun and Shoitsu Omatsu wield big bats.
Lotte hit .295 in 24 games against the Lions this season and has a lineup just versatile enough to cause Seibu a host of problems at the plate and on the basepaths.
Will Murphy keep it going?
While Hanshin Tigers outfielder Matt Murton was garnering all the attention with a record-breaking first season, Lotte pitcher Bill Murphy hit the ground running in his first year in Japan as well.
Murphy was 12-6 with a 3.75 ERA and 125 strikeouts. He was 3-1 with a 3.41 ERA in seven starts against Seibu. With Yuki Karakawa injured, Murphy is the Marines’ next best pitcher.
His season came unhinged during an up-and-down August, but he was able to get himself together down the stretch. He should get the ball in Game 2 with either a chance to win the series or force a decisive third game. He’ll likely be matched up with Takayuki Kishi, so the Marines will need his solid debut to carry over into the postseason.
Which ace will do Yokohama High proud?
A three-game series is over before it really gets going, so the onus will be on Yokohama High School pitching products Hideaki Wakui and Yoshihisa Naruse to get their teams off to a good start.
While Wakui has struggled mightily down the stretch, Naruse has pitched well over the last few weeks and has won his last three decisions. His numbers against the Lions are a tad worrisome (2-2, 4.82 ERA), but he’s licking his chops at the prospect of a duel against Wakui.