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Lions pounce at right time to take control of Pacific League

by Jason Coskrey

All season the Seibu Lions have put the ‘cats have nine lives’ theory to the test, and so far the Pacific League’s resident felines are still kicking.

On June 4, the Lions were 19-27-1 and in last place, 11 games behind the first place Chiba Lotte Marines, with an awful offense and a pitching staff that was somehow even worse.

Today, those same Lions are atop the standings with a shot at completing a run from basement to penthouse in the PL. The Lions have already pulled off one unlikely feat, becoming the fifth team to reach first place after being nine games below .500 at one point during a season, according to Nikkan Sports.

Seibu’s rise hasn’t come without a few breaks. The Marines aided their own demise with bad pitching, falling from first to fourth. Likewise, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, second for much of the year, began losing games that had broken their way earlier in the season.

Not that the Lions haven’t done their part.

Seibu entered June 17-26-1 with a minus-21 run differential. Since then, the Lions are 42-21-7 (the Marines are 26-36-8 and the Fighters 32-30-7 over that span) and have a plus-36 run differential. Offensively, the Lions have hit more home runs and have been more active on the base paths — the team registered 38 stolen bases in July and August after stealing 38 from March 30 to June 30 combined — to help put themselves in better position to generate runs.

While Seibu’s pitching had been atrocious, the problem was compounded by an ineffective offense that gave the pitching staff little margin for error. The Lions hit .212 and .246 in the first two months of the season before hitting .288 in June and .267 in July, a slight uptick that coincided with their climb up the standings. The team slumped to .256 in August, but made their hits count with a season-high 21 homers and 102 runs during the month.

Hiroyuki Nakajima is having an MVP-caliber year, hitting .324 with 12 home runs, 63 RBIs and an .869 on-base plus slugging percentage, while Takeya Nakamura, now leading the PL with 22 home runs, is knocking the ball out of the park with a little more frequency, helping pace an attack that’s doing just enough, though the recent loss of Takumi Kuriyama to injury is a concern.

Right-hander Ryoma Nogami has been a revelation on the mound, going 6-0 in nine starts since his last loss June 27, Kazuhisa Ishii and Takayuki Kishi have also turned in a few good performances, while Opening Day starter Hideaki Wakui has shaken off a horrendous beginning to the season and an unnecessary public shaming — over his extracurricular activities with a hostess — to emerge as the solution at the back of the bullpen with 18 saves, a win and three holds in 32 appearances since returning from a suspension on June 22.

In the pennant race, the Lions still have five games left with the second-placed Fighters, six with the third-place Hawks and five with the Marines. They’ll also have to be mindful of Tohoku Rakuten and Orix in spoiler roles.

No team has ever been nine games below .500, rallied into first place and hung on to win the pennant. This year’s PL race looks set to go down to the wire, but if we’ve learned anything so far, it’s that there’s a lot of life left in these Lions.