A year ago, all that stood between the Pacific League champion Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and a trip to the Japan Series was the third-place Chiba Lotte Marines.
A series that on paper should’ve been a walkover, ended with the Hawks in disbelief as the Marines celebrated the PL Climax Series title on the field at Yahoo Dome.
Softbank is back in the final stage this year with a strong rotation, a sturdy bullpen and an offense that can score with anybody.
After dominating all-comers during the regular season, the Hawks are where they were one year ago, needing only to overcome a third-place team to vanquish their postseason demons and take their place in the Japan Series.
The opposition this year comes in the form of the Seibu Lions, led by slugger Takeya Nakamura. The Lions had to beat the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in their final game of the year just to qualify for the playoffs. They repaid the debt by sweeping the Fighters out of the first stage in two games.
On paper the series is a mismatch, but recent history has shown it’s wise not to take anything for granted with the Hawks in the playoffs.
Here are five questions ahead of the series:
Can the Hawks keep the Lions caged?
Softbank dominated the season series between the two teams, going 15-5-4 in 24 meetings. Nothing that happened over the final weeks of the season suggests the Lions have closed the gap.
The Hawks will be able to throw out the best group of starters in Japan and back them up with an offense that led NPB with a .267 average and was second with 550 runs scored.
How does the Lions’ pitching stack up?
None of the Lions had much success against Softbank this season, as evidenced by Seibu’s 4.23 ERA in 24 meetings between the teams.
Kazuki Hoashi (9-6, 2.83 ERA in the regular season) and Takayuki Kishi (8-9, 3.80) should start the first two games, which would bring the rotation back around to Hideaki Wakui (9-12, 2.93), the team’s most talented pitcher, and Fumiya Nishiguchi (11-7, 2.57), the Seibu hurler who has performed the best. Youngster Yusei Kikuchi (4-1, 4.14) could also get a start.
Seibu’s bullpen is an uninspiring bunch, though the addition of Kazuhisa Ishii to that group is an intriguing proposition.
How good is the Hawks’ pitching?
Softbank has the best rotation in Japan and will open the series with a potentially dominating quartet.
Tsuyoshi Wada (16-5, 1.51 ERA) probably gets the ball in Game 1, with some combination of Toshiya Sugiuchi (8-7, 1.94), Tadashi Settsu (14-8, 2.79) and D.J. Houlton (19-6, 2.19) handling the next three contests.
That group combined to go 7-3 with a 2.35 ERA in 14 games against Seibu.
Softbank is also formidable in relief with Masahiko Morifuku, Brian Falkenborg and closer Takahiro Mahara leading the charge.
Can the Lions’ offense keep rolling?
Seibu’s 571 runs scored this year was the most in Japan, 21 more than the second-place Hawks’ total.
Behind Nakamura and dangerous bats in Hiroyuki Nakajima, Jose Fernandez and Takumi Kuriyama, it only takes the slightest of sparks for the Seibu lineup to explode.
They’ll have to improve upon a dismal .222 average against Softbank in the regular season, however, if they hope to have a chance at the upset.
Is this Softbank’s year?
The Hawks enter the series with all the advantages, but that’s never stopped them from finding a way to blow it before.
Despite ending the regular season in first place four times since 2003, the Hawks have yet to make it out of the climax series.
Last year’s defeat may have been the most humbling of them all, as the Marines stormed into Fukuoka, rocked Sugiuchi twice and overcame Softbank’s one-game advantage to notch a stunning triumph.
The Hawks are better this year with the addition of Seiichi Uchikawa to the lineup, Settsu to the rotation and both Houlton and Wada pitching at a higher level than they were at this point last season.
The Hawks are also aware of their past failings, providing even more motivation to make quick work of the overmatched Lions.