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Hawks, Marines poised for intriguing showdown in PLCS second stage

by Jason Coskrey

The Chiba Lotte Marines almost didn’t make the playoffs. Now they’ve got their sights set on reaching the Japan Series.

The Marines are flying high after rallying past the Seibu Lions on consecutive days to sweep through the first stage of the Pacific League Climax Series last weekend.

Adding to their confidence is the play of catcher Tomoya Satozaki, who was 4-for-4 with four RBIs in the first stage, big contributions from Toshiaki Imae and Tadahito Iguchi and a nice series from most of their relief pitchers.

The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, meanwhile, won the regular-season pennant and are eager to add the Climax Series title to their haul with a win in the second stage of the postseason.

Softbank has a two-headed monster at the front end of its rotation in Toshiya Sugiuchi and Tsuyoshi Wada and a bullpen that is not likely to fall apart the way Seibu’s did. The Hawks also have the one-game advantage awarded to the pennant winner working in their favor.

The Marines have been building momentum, while the Hawks have been watching and waiting for a chance to determine who will fly the banner for the Pa. League in the Japan Series.

Here are five questions ahead of the series, which begins on Thursday:

Can Lotte overcome the Hawks’ starters?

Softbank is potentially going to throw three different left-handers at the Marines (Toshiya Sugiuchi, Tsuyoshi Wada and Kenji Otonari) and will have Sugiuchi prepared to go twice if necessary.

Sugiuchi and Wada will toe the rubber in the first two games and are Sawamura Award candidates after finishing 16-7 and 17-8, respectively, this season. D.J. Houlton, a solid right-handed option, should get the call in the third game and Otonari is a candidate for a start in the fourth.

Lotte struggled against Seibu ace Hideaki Wakui in the first stage and right off the bat faces two pitchers as good or better. There is a drop-off after Sugiuchi and Wada, but the other Softbank pitchers have the ability to make life hard on the Marines.

Will the “Miracle Marines” shine again? Lotte enters the second stage with a lot of confidence after overcoming ninth-inning deficits in both games of the first stage.

The Marines have a cadre of clutch hitters and an explosive offense that’s never quite out of a game. They excel at stringing together hits, have good rhythm on the basepaths and a bullpen that stepped up for them in the first stage.

Softbank will have to keep the pressure on this group until the final pitch to avoid more Lotte magic in this series.

How does the Softbank offense stack up?

The Hawks’ offense is balanced. Hitoshi Tamura was their best player at the plate, hitting .324 with 27 home runs and 89 RBIs. Jose Ortiz hit 24 homers and was second on the team with 81 RBIs and Roberto Petagine and Hiroki Kokubo can drive in runs as well.

As a team, Softbank hit .288 against Lotte, outscoring the Marines 128-95 in 24 meetings. So the Hawks have had success against the Marines’ pitchers and Lotte having to use its top hurlers, Yoshihisa Naruse and Bill Murphy, in the first stage works in Softbank’s favor.

Is the one-game advantage too much?

The Marines found themselves in a 1-0 hole from the moment Seibu’s Hiroyuki Nakajima made the final out in the first stage.

If that wasn’t enough, the Marines have to deal with hurlers Toshiya Sugiuchi and Tsuyoshi Wada in the first two games.

Game 1 will be key for the Marines and there are reports they’ll send ace Yoshihisa Naruse to the hill on short rest to avoid falling in a 2-0 hole early.

Beating the Hawks four times at home was going to be tough anyway. Mix in Softbank’s one-game advantage, and it may be just a little too much to ask of a Lotte team which had to overextend itself to win in the first stage.

For the Marines to win, what do they need to do?

Locate their offense earlier in the game. In the two games of the first stage Lotte scored a combined four runs in the first eight innings and seven in the ninth and beyond.

The Marines can’t count on the Softbank bullpen to fall apart the way the Lions’ did and they’ll have to get their bats going early to take some pressure off their pitchers.

Working in their favor is that while the Hawks hurlers have been throwing in the Phoenix League, the Marines had to deal with Hideaki Wakui and Takayuki Kishi. So rust won’t be much of a factor at the plate for Lotte.