A long strange season has come to its final bend as the Japan Series prepares to decide NPB’s top team.
That’s a title many would give to the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, who stormed through their schedule behind a powerful offense and the best pitching staff in Japan.
The rest of the NPB’s last line of defense comes in the form of the Chunichi Dragons, who are in the Series for the fifth time since 2004. They have their own talented group of pitchers and will be aiming to shut down the Softbank express to win one for outgoing manager Hiromitsu Ochiai.
Here are five key questions ahead of the Series, which starts Saturday:
Which pitching staff is better?
The Hawks led Japan with a 2.32 team ERA and the Dragons were second at 2.46.
Softbank has arms everywhere, with perhaps the best two left-handers in Japan in Tsuyoshi Wada and Toshiya Sugiuchi, PL co-wins leader D.J. Houlton, and another solid option in Tadashi Settsu. The bullpen is stacked as well with Masahiko Morifuku, Brian Falkenborg and closer Takahiro Mahara.
The CL’s co-wins leader Kazuki Yoshimi heads the Chunichi rotation, but there is a dropoff behind him. Chen Wei-yin is one of the top pitchers in Japan when he’s on, but the Dragons have to hope for big games from Maximo Nelson (if healthy), Daisuke Yamai and whoever else toes the rubber. Though they will be aided by playing Games 3, 4, 5 at home in pitcher-friendly Nagoya Dome.
The Dragons may actually hold an advantage in the back of the bullpen, where Akifumi Takahashi, Takuya Asao, possibly NPB’s top reliever, and closer Hitoki Iwase will be waiting.
How do the offenses stack up?
Softbank has the best hitter in Japan in Seiichi Uchikawa, who led NPB with a .338 average, the best base stealer in Yuichi Honda, who swiped 60 bags and hit .305, and plenty of covering fire in Nobuhiro Matsuda and Yuya Hasegawa, among others.
Manager Koji Akiyama also has a deep bench to mine for hits and defense during the trickier moments in Nagoya, where pinch-hitting comes into play.
The Dragons have the potential to be explosive, but have rarely been able to show it. Unless Masahiko Morino, Kazuhiro Wada and Tony Blanco get going, Chunichi could find runs hard to come by.
Are the Dragons up to the task?
The Hawks have been on another level for much of the season and it’s going to take everything the Dragons have to derail them.
The key for Chunichi is getting things turned around at the plate. The Dragons’ offense sputtered in the final stage of the Climax Series and now faces the deepest staff in Japan.
Ryosuke Hirata and Hirokazu Ibata played well in the Climax Series, but the rest of the Dragons will have to join the party in order to knock off Softbank.
Can Ochiai go out on top?
The Dragons fired on all cylinders in the immediate aftermath of the team announcing Ochiai would not be retained.
With that fire lit under them, they chased down the Tokyo Yakult Swallows to help Ochiai capture the third CL pennant of his eight seasons in charge.
As successful as Ochiai has been, he’s only 1-3 in the Japanese Fall Classic heading into this series.
At most, Ochiai has seven games remaining in the Dragons dugout. He’s found a way to make the right moves throughout his tenure and if he can outfox Akiyama and knock off the favored Hawks, he’ll shove it in management’s face by going out on top.
Can Softbank complete the journey?
After years of coming up short in the PL Climax Series, the Hawks are back in the title round for the first time since winning it all in 2003.
Giving them even more motivation is the knowledge that the band might be about to break up, with Wada and shortstop Munenori Kawasaki eyeing the majors, and Sugiuchi mulling exercising his domestic free agency rights.
The Hawks won the interleague title by three games and the PL crown by 17½ games. There’s only one domestic title left, and the team is focused on adding it to its mantle.
Prediction: Softbank in five.