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Marines, Dragons prepare to lock horns

by Jason Coskrey

NAGOYA — After several months, the Japanese baseball landscape has cleared and there are two teams still standing.

The Chiba Lotte Marines had to win on the season’s final day just to make the playoffs and overcame late-inning deficits on consecutive days to advance out of the first stage of the Pacific League Climax Series.

In the final stage, Lotte outlasted the Pacific League champion Fukuoka Softbank Hawks — overcoming the Hawks’ one-game advantage — to become the first-ever third-place team to capture the Climax Series title.

The Chunichi Dragons, on the other hand, marched through the second half of the season as if the Central League pennant was their birthright, going from third to first in the standings.

As an encore, the Dragons outclassed the defending Japan Series champion Yomiuri Giants in the Climax Series to reach the Japanese Fall Classic for the second time in four seasons.

With 2010 almost in the books, it’s down to the scrappy, spirited play of Norifumi Nishimura’s “Miracle Marines” against the cold, ruthless efficiency of Hiromitsu Ochiai’s Dragons.

Here are five questions ahead of the series, which begins on Saturday at Nagoya Dome:

Will the layoff hurt the Marines?

Is it better to keeping playing when you’re playing well, or better to rest? The Marines last played on Oct. 19, while the Dragons were on the field last week.

It’s difficult to replicate the intensity of a game in practice and the Marines will have had an 11-day layoff when the Japan Series begins. So getting off to a good start may be dependent on how quickly they shake off the rust.

The positive is the long layoff may have given injured pitcher Yuki Karakawa enough time to improve his condition and make an appearance for Lotte.

Can Naruse make his mark?

Marines ace Yoshihisa Naruse has had a good month to say the least, going 3-0 with a 1.72 ERA in four starts. That span includes wins that clinched Lotte’s berths in the playoffs and Japan Series.

His play this month is similar to the playoff run Seibu Lions ace Hideaki Wakui — like Naruse a Yokohama High School product — made in 2008. Wakui dominated the opposition that winter, guiding the Lions to an impromptu Japan Series triumph.

Naruse is hoping to do the same for the Marines and will be called upon at least twice should the series extend far enough.

Which MVP candidate is more important?

It’s entirely possible the CL and PL MVP winners will come from this series.

Chunichi’s Kazuhiro Wada had a spectacular year, hitting .339 with 37 home runs and 93 RBIs while leading the NPB with a .437 on-base percentage and .624 slugging percentage.

Lotte captain Tsuyoshi Nishioka racked up the second-highest hit total (206) in PL history and ended the season with a .346 average, .423 on-base percentage, 22 stolen bases and 59 RBIs.

They’re both valuable with their bats, but Nishioka deserves special attention for his glove. While Wada is out in left field, Nishioka is in the thick of things at shortstop and is one of Japanese baseball’s top defensive players.

The Marines, as much as they’ve preached team harmony, march to the beat of Nishioka’s drum. He’s stepped his game up on the field, shown leadership (which he mostly lacked last season) off it, and may just be the most important player in this series.

Can Chunichi pitch its way to the title?

Pitching wins championships and the Dragons have to feel good about the mix of talent and experience at their disposal.

The front of their rotation is made up of two of the top pitchers in the NPB in Chen Wei-yin and Kazuki Yoshimi, who were a combined 17-6 with a 2.69 ERA at Nagoya Dome, site of the first two and, if necessary, final two games of the series.

Most of Chunichi’s other potential starters can call on the experience of having been with the team during the run to the 2007 title. That group includes Daisuke Yamai, who threw eight innings of the combined perfect game that ended the ’07 Series.

How will Lotte hitters fare vs. Chunichi’s bullpen?

The final two games of the CL Climax Series weren’t kind to Dragons setup man Takuya Asao and closer Hitoki Iwase.

Iwase took a loss in Game 3 of that series after giving up a leadoff home run in the ninth inning. Asao coughed up a two-run lead in Game 4 after giving up a pair of runs in the ninth, only pulling victory from the jaws of defeat via Kazuhiro Wada’s sayonara single in the bottom of the ninth.

The Marines used late-inning rallies to advance out of the first stage of the the PL Climax Series and should have a ton of confidence heading into the championship round.

Lotte doesn’t have home run power at every spot, but there are enough good hitters in the lineup to keep an inning going just long enough to cause trouble.