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Teams jockeying for playoff position to battle Giants, Tigers

by Wayne Graczyk

At the All-Star break for the 2013 NPB season, the Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers appear to have a lock on finishing in first and second place in the Central League pennant race. Unless there is total meltdown by one of them, we will be seeing them in the postseason Climax Series come October.

But which of the four other CL teams will join them?

The Chunichi Dragons, Hiroshima Carp, Yokohama BayStars and Tokyo Yakult Swallows keep switching in places three through six. None of them can seem to put together a halfway decent winning streak and none seems to want that elusive third slot in the CLCS.

Whichever of the four finally finishes in third place will likely end the season as a sub-.500 team. At the break, the Dragons were the bottom team in the “A Class” but nine games under the break-even mark. The imbalance can be traced to the recently concluded interleague play in which the Central League clubs were outplayed by their Pacific League cousins.

The CL teams lost 80, won 60 and there were four ties in interleague play. Conversely, a fourth-place Pa League club with a record above .500 might be left out of the postseason.

The jobs of the managers of the lower four Central League teams in question are on the line. It is the final season for 72-year-old Chunichi skipper Morimichi Takagi ,who will most likely be replaced by a popular former Dragons player, 43-year-old Kazuhiro Tatsunami, even if the Nagoya club brings home a Japan Series title this fall.

Kenjiro Nomura will likely be out as field boss of the Carp if Hiroshima fails to make the Climax round, and the same might go for managers Kiyoshi Nakahata of Yokohama and Junji Ogawa of Yakult.

Three of the four clubs have had to deal with serious injuries to key players. Chunichi is sorely missing ace pitcher Kazuki Yoshimi, a 31-game winner over the past two seasons. No question the Swallows have been stung by the loss of starting hurlers Shohei Tateyama and Yoshinori Sato, both out for the year following arm surgery.

Hiroshima’s Nomura has had to reconstruct the right side of his infield. Second baseman and leadoff man Akihiro Higashide has not played this season, and slugging first baseman Kenta Kurihara has been on the Carp farm team most of the year, apparently still recovering from an injury that sidelined him in 2012.

All four clubs have recently signed new foreign players in hopes their team might be given a lift. The Dragons inked pitcher Warner Madrigal, Yakult hired Canadian pitcher Chris Leroux, Yokohama took in hurler Tim Corcoran, and the Carp have imported Hawaiian first baseman Kila Ka’aihue, who hit four home runs and drove in 10 during his first three games.

Prior to a recent two-game traveling series against the first-place Giants in Tohoku, Swallows slugger and Central League home run leader Wladimir Balentien said he is hoping his team, in last place at the moment, can somehow turn around its performance and finish even higher than third.

“We’re 15½ games behind the Giants,” said Balentien before playing against Yomiuri at Yamagata on July 9. “If we can win these two, then go on an eight-game winning streak, and the Giants lose eight in a row, we can cut that lead in half,” said the wishful thinker.

Unfortunately for him, the Swallows lost both those games and now find themselves 17½ games behind the first-place Kyojin.

“At least we can try for second place,” he said later. “If we finish third and the Tigers end up second, we would have to go to Koshien to play the Climax Series. I don’t want to go there,” he said, pointing out the difficulty of playing before the vociferous Hanshin hometown fans.

Teammate Lastings Milledge has what would appear to be a more realistic goal, saying, “I think we should play for third place.”

Regardless of which team makes the playoffs, it is good the Central League went to the two-stage post-season format. In effect there are two pennant races going on, with the Giants and Tigers vying for the league championship, and the four runners-up still in contention for the last CS berth and the possibility, however slight, of playing in the 2013 Japan Series.

The Dragons, Carp, BayStars and Swallows will be playing each other in 60 percent of their remaining games, and that should help increase attendance at meaningful games. Yakult and Hiroshima played to crowds of better than 28,000 each night at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium in a three-game series July 12-14, helped by the fact Swallows fans were given souvenir green YS-logo jerseys on their way into the ballpark.

Chunichi fans must be ecstatic about the apparent return to form of relief pitcher Takuya Asao, the 2011 Central League MVP. They are also hoping the current CL batting leader, Dragons third baseman Hector Luna, can return to the starting lineup not long after regular play resumes July 24. Luna injured his left knee in a July 6 base-running incident.

Since he is sitting out the All-Star Games, Luna, even if he is healthy, cannot play in the first 10 games after the break, according to Japanese baseball rules.

Then there is the excitement of the home run derby where Balentien has hit 32, and Yokohama first baseman Tony Blanco has blasted 30 out of the parks. Balentien is on a pace for 56 and says his goal now is 55 which would tie the all-time Japanese baseball single season record held jointly by Sadaharu Oh, Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com