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Playoff system selling Japanese baseball short

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The Hanshin Tigers and Hiroshima Carp on Sunday played a hotly contested, tense, and entertaining game full of momentum shifts and almost everything anyone — anyone who likes pitching and defense at least — would want out of a playoff game in which one team’s season was on the line.

Then just like that, it was over.

Not after an amazing play or clutch hit, but on a routine fly ball to center that ended the top of the 12th inning and secured a 0-0 tie for the Tigers. Under the auspices of the NPB playoff system, a tie was as good as a win for the Tigers, who won Game 1 1-0, in the three-game series. So they advanced to the final stage of the Central League Climax Series.

It also meant that the Carp’s season ended on that most exciting of plays: the sayonara tie.

It was a wholly unsatisfying finish to a series that consisted of a pair of dramatic pitcher’s duels that had fans on the edge of their seats.

Japanese baseball is awash with things that boggle the mind, but the playoff system is one of the chief offenders. There is no fairness in the system until the Japan Series. Instead of giving the higher-seeded teams just a slight advantage in the Climax Series, lower-seeded teams, like the Carp, find themselves in a rigged system, where they’re forced to play every game on the road and ties are basically wins for the home team.

The Tigers got the long end of the stick this time, but they’ll learn how the other half lives when the final stage begins on Wednesday. The CL champion Yomiuri Giants will start the six-game series with an automatic one-game advantage over Hanshin, which finished second in the CL, with every game to be played at Tokyo Dome. The Giants could, for instance, win just two games (and play out a tie) and advance to the Japan Series. Hanshin has to win four times.

Imagine the indelible moments that would be missing from this year’s MLB postseason without the Kansas City Royals’ run of extra-inning success or the 18-inning epic the San Francisco Giants and Washington Nationals played during their division series if MLB employed a NPB-like system that prevented those type of games. Then again, this is NPB we’re talking about, a organization that instead of maximizing its reach at the most important time of the season, opted to have the CL and Pacific League Climax Series games begin at the same time each day, instead of starting one during the day and one at night.

Now, there are probably valid reasons for Japan to cap regular-season games at 12 innings, one of which is the unpredictable length of baseball games in cities without 24-hour non-taxi public transportation.

Except that this year’s first-stage games all started at 2 p.m. So there was no real reason to not extend the innings-limit beyond 12. It’s not a matter of time, and not even a matter of wildly differing rules, since Japan Series games go up to 15 innings. Maybe on Sunday a tie couldn’t have been avoided even in 15 innings, but 12 feels like too few in the postseason. It simply seems like it was more a lack of any kind of ability to plan for varying scenarios by the league.

That leaves you with scenes like Sunday’s, or like in 2011, when the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks won their series against the Seibu Lions after the top of the 12th, when the tie was assured, were unsure whether to start celebrating or not, then went out and played the bottom half anyway.

None of this, it must be said, is on the Tigers. They worked hard over 144 games to finish in second place and earn all the perks that entails.

The problem is the system that allowed the Tigers to win without winning and the Carp to lose without losing. That’s just not the way things should be decided in the postseason.

That’s not the way this game should’ve been decided.

Carp rookie Daiichi Osera delivered seven shutout frames and Tigers starter Atsushi Nomi threw eight and escaped a one-out bases-loaded jam in the seventh. Tigers closer Oh Seung-hwan came up huge for his team, inheriting a tie game in the top of the ninth and delivering three shutout frames. The teams combined for 14 hits, both clubs had runners thrown out trying to advance to that all-important next base late in the game, and 46,815 fans lived and died with each twist and turn, only to have the game end with a thud.

The Carp may have lost anyway — they had already dipped into a suspect bullpen — but they, and fans on both sides and in general, deserved a better ending to the series than a scoreless, walk-off tie.