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Giants face uphill battle against Dragons in CLCS final stage

by Hiroki Noda

Kyodo News

NAGOYA — The Chunichi Dragons and the Yomiuri Giants open the final stage of the Central League Climax Series on Wednesday for a spot in the Japan Series against the Chiba Lotte Marines.

In their fourth final-stage encounter in as many years, the CL champion Dragons will try to continue the home-field dominance they enjoyed in the regular season.

The Dragons had a 53-18 record to go with a tie for a .746 winning percentage in the pitcher-friendly confines of Nagoya Dome. They won 10 of 12 home games against the third-place Giants, enjoying three-game sweeps in July, August and September.

Not only will all the games be played at Nagoya Dome, Chunichi has an automatic one-win advantage as another reward for winning the league title.

Should Yomiuri drop the opener, it can only afford to lose once more while having to rack up four wins if the Giants want to punch their ticket to Japanese baseball’s biggest stage for the third straight year.

That could be a tall order for the Dragons, who had an NPB-best team ERA of 3.29 during the regular season.

Against the Giants, Kazuki Yoshimi, the probable Game 1 starter, went 5-1 with a 3.95 ERA in seven games this year. Daisuke Yamai was 3-0 with a 2.73 ERA in four games.

Chen Wei-yin also had a respectable 3.52 ERA against the Giants, going 3-3 in seven starts. The Taiwanese left-hander lost his first three starts, but won the next three between July and August.

Chunichi also hit well against Yomiuri pitchers, with four of its regulars hitting at least .314.

Kazuhiro Wada led with a .395 clip, seven home runs and 18 RBIs. Tony Blanco (.284) also connected seven times and drove in 19 runs. Motonobu Tanishige, Masahiko Morino and Masahiro Araki hit .387, .316 and .314, respectively.

The Giants, meanwhile, will look to carry the momentum they gained from their first-stage victory over the Hanshin Tigers at Koshien Stadium.

If they beat the Dragons, they will become the first third-place team to reach the Japan Series in the brief history of the CL playoffs.

Tetsuya Utsumi will likely start Game 1 for Yomiuri. The southpaw was 2-2 with a 2.80 ERA in five games against Chunichi in the regular season.

Shun Tono, who led the Giants with 13 wins, is expected to start Game 2 or 3 after pitching five solid innings against Hanshin on Saturday.

Giants pitching coach Masaki Saito said Monday he has told his pitchers to be ready to contribute in any role, evidenced by Dicky Gonzalez and Seth Greisinger coming out of the bullpen against the Tigers.

On offense, Michihiro Ogasawara was the only hitter in Yomiuri’s regular lineup to hit .300 against Chunichi pitchers this year with a .323 average, eight homers and 23 RBIs.

The third baseman was terrific in the first stage, going 6-for-8 with three RBIs.

In 2007, the year the CL introduced the three-team Climax Series, the second-place Dragons beat the champion Giants in the final stage before going on to win their first Japan Series title since 1954.

The Giants downed the Dragons in the same stage the past two years. Yomiuri lost to the Seibu Lions in the 2008 Japan Series, but won its first series crown in seven years, beating the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters a year later.

The Dragons and the Giants are 5-5 with a tie in their 11 head-to-head postseason games in 2007-09.