/ |

Few issues left in play as season nears finish

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Nippon Professional Baseball has crowned its 2013 league champions and most of the spots in the Climax Series have already been spoken for.

Even so, there are still a number of questions remaining and storylines to be wrapped up as the season enters the home stretch.

The most important matter still on the table is figuring out who will join the first-time Pacific League champion Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in the PL postseason.

The Chiba Lotte Marines are all but in, barring a collapse, with a one-game lead on the third-place Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and three-game cushion on the Seibu Lions, who remain on the outside looking in from their position at fourth in the standings.

The three teams will jockey for position over the final few games of the year with the second-place finisher earning the right to host every game of the first stage of the Climax Series.

The Marines still have the inside track on the spot with seven games left in their season. Seibu also has seven games remaining, while Softbank will play five.

The Lions are the furthest back, but have a few golden opportunities to gain ground with two games against the Marines and two against the Hawks remaining on the slate.

Lotte and Softbank will not meet again in the regular season.

Hawks outfielder Yuya Hasegawa will be trying to help get his team into the postseason while also attempting to complete only the third 200-hit season in PL history.

Hasegawa has 193 hits after going 1-for-4 in a win over the Eagles on Sunday and still has time to join Ichiro Suzuki (210 hits for the Orix BlueWave in 1994) and Tsuyoshi Nishioka (206 for the Marines in 2010) as PL members of the 200-hit club.
Overall, there have been six 200-hit seasons in NPB history — with former Tokyo Yakult Swallow Norichika Aoki accounting for two of them.

Hanshin Tigers outfielder Matt Murton is the single-season record-holder, having connected on 214 in 2010.

Elsewhere in the PL, Rakuten pitcher Masahiro Tanaka already made history this season by winning his first 22 decisions, but with nine games left on the Eagles’ schedule, Tanaka could possibly take the mound one final time with a chance to finish the year a perfect 23-0.

Tanaka isn’t the only 2013 record-setter with another lofty goal in sight.

Swallows slugger Wladimir Balentien broke the single-season home run record earlier in the month and still has a chance to add a Triple Crown to what has already been an outstanding season.

Through Saturday’s games Balentien led the Central League with a .333 average and 58 home runs. His final hurdle will be to chase down the Yokohama BayStars’ Tony Blanco for the RBI title, a race Blanco leads 129-127.

There in spirit: The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles celebrated the team’s first Pacific League title in their road uniforms, but reliever Darrell Rasner’s home white stood out amongst a sea of red during the Eagles’ revelry Thursday night at Seibu Dome.
Rasner is in his fifth year with the club and saved 17 games (he also recorded three holds) in 37⅔ innings over 37 appearances this season.

The right-hander was injured earlier this month and had Tommy John surgery on Sept. 14 in the U.S., meaning he wasn’t able to attend Thursday’s clincher against the Seibu Lions.

While Rasner wasn’t there in person, fellow reliever Koji Aoyama held up Rasner’s white No. 17 uniform during the team picture and wore it proudly as the Eagles celebrated on the field and later during the postgame beer fight.

“He fought with us this year,” Aoyama said when asked about Rasner during a televised interview. “He’s also here with us today.”

On the rise: Seibu Lions infielder Hideto Asamura is arguably the most improved player in Japan this season.

Asamura is having a breakout year and has fully come into his own, as evidenced by his numbers this year.

Asamura had a three-run homer among his two hits in Sunday’s 6-5 win over the Chiba Lotte Marines. Through 136 games, Asamura is hitting .317 with 26 homes runs and 103 RBIs.

That’s a major improvement compared to the 16 homers and 82 RBIs he produced over a combined 251 games in 2011 and 2012.