The last time the Hanshin Tigers went to the Japan Series, they had to scratch and claw their way through seven games to win their first championship.
This year will probably be no different.
Make no mistake — Hanshin pounced on the rest of the CL this season this season, producing an enviable 87-51 record (.630 winning percentage), a significant improvement on their last pennant-winning record of 74-49 (.602) in 1985.
But these aren’t your father’s Tigers.
Instead of relying on heavy hitters like Randy Bass, Masayuki Kakefu and Akinobu Okada — who combined to hit 129 of Hanshin’s 219 homers 18 years ago — today’s Tigers are a scrappy bunch of contact hitters and speedy runners who win games one base at a time.
That means — aside from wearing pinstripes and playing on natural grass — the new generation of Tigers aren’t much different from the team they’ll meet in Game 1 of the Japan Series on Saturday night in Fukuoka.
While Hanshin will likely go with 20-game winner Kei Igawa as its Game 1 starter, the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks are expected to send their own 20-win hurler, Kazumi Saito, to the mound.
Sure, the Hawks had the highest batting average (.297) and most stolen bases (147) in Japan this season, but the Tigers (.287, 115 SB) are no slouches in the offense department either. Hanshin did lag near the bottom of the CL in home runs, but the Tigers’ tater tally of 141 wasn’t far behind the Hawks’ 154.
And while Hanshin’s pitching staff compiled a best-in-Japan 3.53 ERA, the Hawks’ mound crew held its own with a PL-best 3.94 ERA.
All that adds up to a tightly contested series that could go the full seven games.
Starting pitchers: While southpaw ace Igawa (20-5, 2.79 ERA) heads into the Japan Series with a full head of steam, Hanshin’s likely Game 2 starter, right-hander Hideki Irabu (13-8, 3.85 ERA), started this season strong then trailed off. The Tigers have an enviable starting rotation, which also includes lefty starters Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi and Trey Moore and righty Keiichi Yabu.
With Nagisa Arakaki (8-7, 3.33) recovering from an ankle injury, the Hawks are going to have to rely on their three core starters — Saito (20-3, 2.83), rookie Tsuyoshi Wada (14-5, 3.38), and Toshiya Sugiuchi (10-8, 3.38) — to keep Daiei competitive the first three games. Hayato Terahara and Brandon Knight are the two most likely candidates to pitch Game 4. Advantage: Tigers.
Relievers: Hanshin relief ace Jeff Williams has been devastating this season, notching 25 saves while registering a 1.53 ERA and holding opponents to a .195 batting average. Fellow import Jarrod Regan lent a hand in the bullpen, going 3-0 in middle relief with a 1.51 ERA in 35 2/3 innings while Yuya Ando picked up 10 save points.
Hawks manager Sadaharu Oh tested out at least five different pitchers in the role of closer this year before dividing most of the duties between Takayuki Shinohara (10 saves, 2.32 ERA) and Matt Skrmetta (11 saves, 3.85). Advantage: Tigers.
Catchers: While Hanshin’s Akihiro Yano is coming off a career year in which he hit .327 with 14 homers, he still doesn’t hold a candle to Kenji Jojima, who is also coming off his best season at the plate: .330, 39 doubles and 34 home runs.
Jojima, who has won rave reviews from major league scouts, has developed into one of the finest defensive catchers in Japan. This year, he threw out 42 percent of would-be base-stealers while Yano nailed 35 percent. Advantage: Hawks.
Infielders: The loss of star third baseman Hiroki Kokubo, who missed the entire season because of knee injury, was expected to deal a serious blow to the Hawks pennant chances. But then along came Munenori Kawasaki. Though certainly not Kokubo’s peer in terms of power, Kawasaki held his own this year, batting .294 while swiping 30 bases.
In addition to light-hitting shortstop Yusuke Torigoe, Daiei’s infield includes two candidates for the league MVP award: first baseman Nobuhiko Matsunaka (.323, 30 HR) and second baseman Tadahito Iguchi (.339, 27 homers, 42 steals).
Hanshin first baseman George Arias (.266, 38 HR) can match any Daiei player home run-for-home run, but the rest of Hanshin’s infield packs little punch. While Atsushi Kataoka leads the platoon at third base, probably the best thing that can be said about Atsushi Fujimoto’s hitting is that he’s really good with a glove.
Second baseman Makoto Imaoka remains a big question mark. Imaoka, a terrific clutch hitter who batted .427 with runners in scoring position this year, missed the last part of the season because of injury, but if he can play in the series, he’s sure to make an impact. Advantage: Hawks.
Outfielders: Hawks center fielder Akihito Muramatsu (.324, 32 steals), still recovering from a broken collarbone, will likely be limited to pinch-running duties. Look for Oh to fill the hole in center with either Yukio Deguchi or Kazuyuki Takahashi. Left fielder Pedro Valdes and right fielder Hiroshi Shibahara both make good contact, though Valdes offers a little more power.
Left fielder Tomoaki Kanemoto has been steady at the plate batting .289 with 18 homers and 18 steals this season. Hanshin center fielder Norihiro Akahoshi makes good contact and is the biggest base-stealing threat in Japan, though he may find his match in Hawks catcher Jojima. Shinjiro Hiyama patrols right field and swings a steady bat. Advantage: Tigers.
Designated hitters: If Osamu Hamanaka, currently recovering from injury, is not ready to play, the Tigers may hand the DH role to either Hiroshi Yagi or Katsumi Hirosawa, two aging sluggers who saw a lot of action as pinch hitters this season. The Hawks will likely use either contact-hitter Noriyoshi Omichi or slugger Julio Zuletta. Advantage: Hawks.
Prediction: Tigers in seven.
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