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Newly crowned Japan Series champs just getting started

by Jason Coskrey

Good luck beating these Giants next year.

The new NPB champions had only been crowned for a few minutes Saturday when manager Tatsunori Hara proclaimed his team good enough to repeat. Japan Series MVP Tetsuya Utsumi agreed, and really, who could blame him?

A few of the team’s core players are still fairly young, and the Giants’ deep pockets have helped keep those young players surrounded by capable veterans. So it’s not at all a stretch to envision the Giants taking another lap around Tokyo Dome, Japan Series trophy in tow, this time next year.

“This team is still on the rise,” Hara said after winning his third title as the Yomiuri manager to go alongside the three he won as the team’s star third baseman in the 1980′s and early 1990′s. “If the players keep practicing, the team will get stronger. More than anything, this group of players is young. So I believe we are capable of repeating as champions.”

That’s cause for concern for the other five Central League clubs. The Giants won the CL pennant by 10½ games as presently constituted, and imagining them coming back even stronger should be a troubling thought for opposing teams.

Most of the pieces for another title run are already in place.

Shortstop Hayato Sakamoto hit .311 with 14 home runs and 69 RBIs and at 23 years old is only going to get better. There’s also room to grow for 28-year-old outfielder Hisayoshi Chono, who in his third season hit .301 with 14 home runs and 60 RBIs while solidifying the top of the Yomiuri lineup.

Pitchers Tetsuya Utsumi (30) and Hirokazu Sawamura (24) mowed down the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the Japan Series, combining to allow five runs over 29 innings, and figure to be major cogs in the rotation over the next few years. Yomiuri may have also unearthed gems in Ryosuke Miyaguni (20) and the recently drafted Tomoyuki Sugano (23), one of the top amateur pitching prospects in Japan, while Tetsuya Yamaguchi (29) has become one of the top relievers in NPB.

The odds are against Shinnosuke Abe putting up another .340 season, but the 33-year-old catcher should still have a few more top-level years, offensively and defensively, left in him.

Shuichi Murata remains a legitimate power threat, while Yoshinobu Takahashi and Kenji Yano can help fill out a dangerous lineup, and that’s without finding a spot for the potentially explosive Taishi Ota.

Veteran starters D.J. Houlton, and Toshiya Sugiuchi add to the embarrassment of riches in the rotation, and relievers Scott Mathieson, Yasunari Takagi and Kentaro Nishimura help form a solid bullpen, which gets even stronger with the recent addition of Ryota Katsuki via a trade with Orix.

Yomiuri was pushed to the limit in the playoffs, but successfully navigated rough waters in the Climax Series and Japan Series despite being in a vulnerable position without the injured Sugiuchi.

The Giants will be the hunted next season, and the Hanshin Tigers and Yokohama BayStars have already begun making moves aimed at dethroning them, while there are maneuvers still to be made by the Hiroshima Carp and Chunichi Dragons.

In the midst of a title celebration, the Kyojin weren’t concerned with their challengers.

They seemed to believe a repeat was within reach, which is why Hara was thrown into the air 11 times after the final game of the Japan Series.

“Well since this is the first of many championships to come, we gave him one more toss than we did in the Climax Series,” Utsumi said.