This year the Seibu Lions cruised to their first Pacific League crown in four years — a result expected by many.
Seibu is nearly always favored to win the Pacific League crown. Boasting 14 overall PL titles, it possesses both the talent and aura worthy of a champion.
In the past three years, however, the Leos seemed to have lost their touch. Since 1998 when they last won the league title, the team has always been a major contender in the PL title race.
In all three seasons, however, the Lions squandered opportunities only to watch their opponents snatch the title away from their claws.
Facing a possible fourth straight season without the title — the longest drought in Seibu history — this year the Lions showed no mercy from the very start of the season.
Rookie manager Haruki Ihara, well known as an able and experienced coach, provided strict and sure tactics boosting the Seibu offense in guiding his players to victory — probably the element the Lions most lacked the past three seasons.
The fact that they possessed arguably the best pitching staff in the league did not discourage the Lions from putting additional pressure on their opponents with speedy base-running.
Leadoff batter Kazuo Matsui and Tatsuya Ozeki combined to pile up 45 of Seibu’s league-leading 98 stolen bases.
Their solid pitching staff, led by 14-game winner Fumiya Nishiguchi, leads the PL with a 3.22 ERA. They have given up fewer runs than any other team.
Their lineup, featuring Triple-Crown candidate Alex Cabrera, lead the PL with a .277 batting average, racked up a league-top 1,176 hits, and hit the ball over the fence 167 times — more than any other team in the league. They have also scored the most runs in the PL.
By May 5, Seibu had climbed into first place in the PL standings. The Lions lost just nine of their next 30 games, including a nine-game winning streak, to remain in first place for the rest of the season.
It’s been a decade since the Lions last won 80 games. This year they rolled over their opponents and posted a winning record against every other team in the league.
One disappointment for the Lions this season has been ace right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka, who got off to a tremendous start in April but was eventually sidelined because of injury and has yet to return.
Looking to record the most wins in the PL for the fourth straight year, Matsuzaka started for Seibu’s season-opener for the third straight year, giving up two runs over the distance for the win.
Matsuzaka went on to win five of his next six outings but on May 13, seven days after picking up his sixth win of the year, he complained of soreness in his elbow. He was removed from the first team roster at the end of the month.
The 22-year-old missed the two-game All-Star Series, and after making a brief comeback in early August, suffered an injury to his right leg and was again taken off the active roster at the end of the month.
The Lions were unaffected by the absence of Matsuzaka as they continued gnawing at their opponents with overwhelming power. By the All-Star break the Lions were six games ahead of second-place Kintetsu.
Taiwanese mid-season acquisition Chang Chih-chia (8-3) also gave the Seibu pitching staff a lift.
At the end of July, when the Lions suffered their longest losing streak of the season (five games), Chang gave up one run over eight innings in notching the win and halting the team’s skid.
On Aug. 12, he picked up his seventh win in 11 appearances and in the process the 21-year-old right-hander set a new Japanese professional baseball record of registering at least one strikeout in each of 28 consecutive innings.
Their game against the Kintetsu Buffaloes on Aug. 16 — when they came back from a nine-run deficit to win — symbolized the extraordinary strength of the 2002 Lions.
In their 70th win of the season in late August, ace Nishiguchi came within one out of a no-hitter before giving up two hits in a complete-game victory.
That month, the Lions won 21 games — including a 10-game winning streak, their longest in eight years — setting a new PL record for most wins in a month. By then they had extended their lead over second-place Kintetsu to 13 games, and their magic number was down to 19.
Cabrera also had a terrific August, whacking 15 home runs to raise his batting average from a .292 at the start of the month to .329 — suddenly making himself a Triple-Crown candidate.
His 50th home run of the year on Sept. 10 made him the seventh player in Japanese pro baseball to reach the plateau in one season, and also the fastest to reach 50.
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