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All eyes on Darvish in Climax opener

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Yu Darvish has a few things to take care of before deciding which side of the Pacific he wants to pitch on next season.

Namely, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ace is looking to cap a spectacular season (18-6, 1.44 ERA) by leading his team to its fourth Japan Series in six seasons. Of course, when he gets there, he’ll be aiming to bring the crown back to Sapporo.

In order to do that, he’ll first have to lead the Fighters past a Seibu Lions squad that sneaked into the Pacific League Climax Series on their season’s final day.

Leading the charge for the Lions is slugger Takeya Nakamura, who was so unimpressed by Japanese baseball’s new, less homer-friendly ball that he smacked 48 home runs. No other PL player eclipsed 25, and the Chiba Lotte Marines, collectively, hit 46.

Still, the Lions roared down the stretch and were fortunate the Orix Buffaloes ran out of gas, while the Fighters backed into the postseason.

Here are five questions ahead of their Climax Series matchup, which begins on Saturday:

Can the pitchers following Darvish carry the day?

Once Yu Darvish’s start is out of the way the focus shifts to the rest of the Nippon Ham pitching staff.

Masaru Takeda, who is expected to return from an elbow injury in time to start Game 2, was 2-2 with a 4.07 ERA against Seibu in four appearances, while Bobby Keppel had a 4.33 ERA in six starts versus the Lions, though he escaped with a 3-1 record.

Both are very good pitchers, but the Lions have proven they can score runs against them.

In the bullpen, Fighters closer Hisashi Takeda isn’t lights out, but he did lead the league with 37 saves. Decent arms in Ryo Sakakibara, Naoki Miyanishi and Hirotoshi Masui play into manager Masataka Nashida’s favor, and he can usually rely on useful innings from Keisuke Tanimoto and Yuya Ishii as well.

Darvish sets the tone, but how well the rest of the staff performs may dictate whether or not the Fighters will be moving on.

Can Wakui outshine Darvish?

Lions hurler Hideaki Wakui had a tough time during the regular season, but the postseason gives him a shot at redemption.

At his best, Wakui is among the top pitchers in Japan and, among the Lions’ staff, is the best bet of matching Darvish pitch for pitch and scoring a huge victory in Game 1.

Wakui was knocked around a bit in six starts against the Fighters (21 runs -17 earned — in 38 innings) but Nippon Ham could be running into a buzz saw should he lapse back into the form that made him a 14-game winner just a year ago.

How does the Fighters’ offense stack up?

Offense is a question mark for Nippon Ham heading into this series after struggling to score down the stretch.

Sho Nakata drove in 91 runs, but disappeared late, with no one else to carry the load.

Among the positives is that Yoshio Itoi, the Fighters’ best hitter, scorched the Lions this year with a .378 average and 10 RBIs in 90 at-bats. Eiichi Koyano and Atsunori Inaba also played well against Seibu.

Nippon Ham’s pitchers don’t usually require too much run support, but falling behind could be a troubling proposition for Nashida’s squad.

How important is ‘Okawari-kun’?

Nakamura enters as an important player in this series. The Seibu slugger was the one player not affected by the new ball, leading Japanese baseball in home runs and driving in 116 runs.

He hit 10 homer and drove in 24 runs against the Fighters this season, in addition to being walked 18 times. Nakamura could give the Lions an edge in a close game, given his ability to change the tide with one swing of his bat.

His presence may also open things up for Hiroyuki Nakajima and Jose Fernandez, who could have an impact batting immediately before and after the Lions slugger.

Can ‘Mayo’ roar for the Lions?

The Fighters will be wary of Nakamura, as Lions manager Hisanobu Watanabe tipped Takuya Hara as a key to the series, but don’t sleep on Fernandez in the 5-hole.

Like the rest of the Lions, he didn’t fare well against Darvish, but he had success — albeit in limited opportunities — against probable Game 2 and 3 starters Takeda and Keppel.

Fernandez was 6-for-9 with a homer against Takeda and 6-for-16 against Keppel. Hitting behind a pair of 100-RBI players in Nakajima and Nakamura, Fernandez will get his chances, possibly with runners on base. In a series where runs could be at a premium, Fernandez could tilt the balance.