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Giants, Fighters inch closer to Japan Series clash

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

The dust has settled on the 2012 season and only the Yomiuri Giants and Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters are still standing.

These two clubs will slug it out in the season finale for the second time in four seasons, with the victor claiming the Japan Series title.

The Giants are baseball royalty and enter the Japan Series for the 33rd time with an eye on a record 22nd title, which also would be their first since 2009. The Kyojin won the Central League by 10½ games, but needed to rebound from a 3-1 deficit to see off the Chunichi Dragons in the CL Climax Series in order to reach the Japanese version of the Fall Classic.

Playing for the title is becoming a way of life for the Fighters, who are in the Japan Series for the fourth time in seven years.

Under first-year manager Hideki Kuriyama, the Sapporo-based franchise caged the Seibu Lions late in the season to clinch the pennant, then swept aside the defending Japan Series champion Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in three games in the final stage of the PL Climax Series.

Now the two teams who once shared a home, and still occasionally host games in one another’s building, meet for NPB’s top prize.

Here are five things to watch during the series:

Do the Giants have enough pitching?

The health of Fighters ace Yu Darvish was in question heading into the 2009 Japan Series. The shoe is on the other foot this time around with Yomiuri’s Toshiya Sugiuchi (12-4, 2.04) on the shelf with a shoulder injury.

Yomiuri’s pitching staff was stretched to the limit in the final stage of the CL Climax Series, with Tetsuya Utsumi and D.J. Houlton making starts on three days’ rest, and Hirokazu Sawamura pitching in relief two days after a 108-pitch start.

Those three should form the crux of the rotation, but the pressure on a thin staff only increases if the Kyojin fall into a early hole the way the did against the Dragons in the Climax Series.

Rookie Ryosuke Miyaguni, who started Game 3 of the Climax Series, is likely in the mix again, and Dicky Gonzalez, yet to make an appearance this postseason, may be asked to shoulder some of the load either as a starter or in relief.

Travel days between Games 2 and 3, as well as between Game 5 and 6 also gives the Giants an assist.

Sugiuchi hopes to make it back in time to pitch in the series, but his status is up in the air.

Can Yoshikawa do it again?

Mitsuo Yoshikawa turned in an improbably amazing season for the Fighters, finishing 14-5 with a 1.71 ERA in 173⅔ innings, nicely filling the void left by Darvish. Opposing batters hit .171 against Yoshikawa, who finished second to Tohoku Rakuten’s Masahiro Tanaka with 158 strikeouts in the PL.

He threw seven innings of two-run ball against the Hawks in the Climax Series, and the Fighters may need to squeeze one or two more solid starts out of their unlikely ace in order to cut down the Giants.

Yoshikawa beat Yomiuri during interleague play with seven-plus innings of one run ball in a 5-1 win at Sapporo Dome. In five starts against the similarly high-powered Seibu Lions, who finished second in Japan with 516 runs scored, he had a 2.45 ERA in 39-plus innings.

Yoshikawa should get the ball in Game 1 at Tokyo Dome with a chance to set the tone for Nippon Ham.

Have the Giants awoken?

Offense was main reason the Giants fell into a 3-1 hole against Chunichi in the final stage of the CL Climax Series.

The Kyojin stumbled out of the gate and were outscored 8-3 in Games 1 & 2 before their offense began to come around in a 5-4 loss in Game 3. The Giants then outscored the Dragons 10-5 over the last three games of the series.

It’s possible rust played a role, as Yomiuri played a few Phoenix League games but was otherwise idle while the Dragons faced the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in the first stage. So it’s also worth noting that while Yomiuri needed six games to dispatch the Dragons, the Fighters needed just three to reach the Japan Series and have sat idle since Oct. 19.

There are few places to hide against the Giants lineup, and they’re hard to stop once they get rolling. After shaking out the cobwebs against Chunichi, the Nippon Ham pitchers could have a dogfight on their hands.

Three the hard way:

Two of NPB’s premier hitters will be occupying the three-hole for the Fighters and Giants.

Nippon Ham’s Yoshio Itoi is coming off a monster performance in the final stage, hitting .333 with a pair of home runs and four RBIs against Softbank.

Itoi has a good eye, a slick mix of power and speed, and ended the regular season with a .304 average, nine home runs, 48 RBIs, 22 stolen bases and a .404 on-base percentage, the second only to Shinnosuke Abe’s .429 in the NPB.

The threat Itoi poses is even more menacing with the way cleanup hitter Sho Nakata played down the stretch and during the Climax Series.

The guy in the other dugout isn’t so bad either.

Yomiuri’s Hayato Sakamoto tied teammate Hisayoshi Chono for the CL lead with 173 hits and batted .311 with 14 homers, 69 RBIs, 16 stolen bases and a .359 OPS.

Sakamoto had a rough go of things in the Climax Series, but with Chono leading off and Abe batting fourth, he’ll have the perfect opportunity to put his stamp on the series.

Takeda gets a second chance:

Few Fighters had a worse ending the 2009 Japan Series than closer Hisashi Takeda. Nippon Ham was poised to take a 3-2 advantage back to Sapporo when Takeda took the mound with a 2-1 lead in the ninth inning of Game 5 at Tokyo Dome.

Yoshiyuki Kamei sent Takeda’s first pitch into the seats to tie the game, and Abe won it with a solo homer later in the inning.

Takeda enters this series having led the Pacific League with 32 saves and on the heels of recording the final out of each of the Fighters’ wins over the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks during their Climax Series sweep of the defending champions.

He made 56 appearances during the regular season, allowing two home runs and finishing with a 2.32 ERA in 54⅓ innings. Takeda hasn’t allowed a run in three innings of work during the postseason.

The Nippon Ham closer made three appearances at the Big Egg this year, leaving with a pair of saves and a spotless ERA in three-plus innings.

Takeda and the Fighters will hope the Tokyo Dome ghosts of Japan Series past remain dead and buried if he’s pressed into action in the Giants’ home park this time around.