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Defending champion Hawks begin title defense

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

After winning last season’s Japan Series the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks lost their three best pitchers and an All-Star shortstop.

Instead of rebuilding, the Hawks reloaded, riding ace Tadashi Settsu and another strong year on the mound to a third-place finish in the Pacific League, earning another trip to the Climax Series.

The Hawks beat the Seibu Lions in an epic 12-inning contest at Yahoo Dome to close out the final stage of the 2011 Climax Series and are hoping to cage the cats again this year.

The two teams get together one round earlier this year, with the series taking place at Seibu Dome.

The Lions feature the PL home run king Takeya Nakamura and MVP candidate Hiroyuki Nakajima in a lineup that led the league with 516 runs. The Lions can be a fearsome opponent at home, and aren’t planning to be a doormat for another Softbank celebration.

The Hawks won the season series with a 13-11 record. Game 1 of the Climax Series first stage is scheduled for Saturday at Seibu Dome. Here are five questions ahead of the series:

Can Seibu’s bullpen hold up?

Starter-turned-closer Hideaki Wakui is a solid option in the ninth and beyond … if the Lions can get him the ball.

Seibu’s relief corps has been mostly unreliable all year, a fact highlighted by their bloated 3.60 ERA, the worst in the PL.

Randy Williams has a 1.70 ERA in 55 appearances, and is a good late-inning option, but Atsushi Okamoto and Hironori Matsunaga haven’t been good.

The best-case scenario for Seibu is to get seven to eight innings from its starter and turn the ball over to Williams and Wakui. Any other scenario could be cause for concern.

How good are Softbank’s starters?

Tadashi Settsu embraced his new role as the team’s No. 1 starter, the Hawks hardly missed a beat on the mound despite losing their top three pitchers from 2011.

Settsu isn’t the flashiest pitcher, but his blunt effectiveness produced results, as evidenced by a 17-5 record and 1.71 ERA. He was usually on top of his game against Seibu, finishing 5-1 in six starts against the Lions.

Shota Takeda should get the start in Game 2 with either a chance to clinch the series or the Hawks’ season riding on the rookie’s shoulders. The wiry righty’s command was inconsistent at times, but he was good enough to post an 8-1 record and 1.07 ERA in 11 starts.

Softbank hopes to have lefty Kenji Otonari (12-8, 2.03) start the opener of the final stage against Hokkaido Nippon Ham, but he’ll be ready to pitch in a potential Game 3 against the Lions.

Will the top of the Seibu order deliver?

The Lions have a pair of potent bats in No. 3 batter Hiroyuki Nakajima and cleanup hitter Takeya Nakamura, but their effectiveness is diminished it there’s no one on base ahead of them.

The task of setting the table falls to leadoff man Hideto Asamura and No. 2 hitter Shogo Akiyama. Both are good hitters with the speed to take an extra base or steal to help manufacture runs.

Seibu will want to give its pitchers as much run support as possible, and the young leadoff duo’s role in that will be vital.

Can Nakamura be contained?

If there’s one bat the Hawks will want to tread lightly around, it’s the one wielded by Nakamura, who this season won the PL home run title for the second straight season.

Nakamura has a .231 average and 125 strikeouts, so it’s pretty much feast or famine when the big man is at the plate, but he’ll be in his comfort zone at Seibu Dome, which suits the big-swinging right-handed hitter who hit 12 of his 27 homers at home.

Nakamura should be confident heading into Game 1, having hit .286 in 14 at-bats against Tadashi Settsu this season.

How about the Hawks’ offense?

Nobuhiro Matsuda’s return — the third baseman had missed over two months with a broken — is a shot in the arm to the Softbank lineup.

Wily Mo Pena (21 home runs, 76 RBIs) gives the Hawks a big power threat of their own, and he’s even more dangerous if Yuichi Honda, Kenji Akashi and Seiichi Uchikawa get on in front of him.

Softbank has already proven it can push runs across against Seibu, having outscored the Lions 83-67 in their 24 meetings this season.