CHIBA — The Chiba Lotte Marines are battling more than the Seibu Lions in this weekend’s Pacific League first-round playoffs.
The Marines are attempting to rewrite history, one game at a time.
Perhaps the most maligned team in Japanese baseball, Chiba has posted losing seasons in 17 of the past 20 years and hasn’t won a pennant in 31 years, the longest drought among the 12 pro clubs.
Last year, the Marines finished the season a half-game out of the playoffs, and as the regular season wrapped up, Chiba had to watch the scoreboard and hope the team just ahead in the standings, the Nippon Ham Fighters, lost.
The Marines were postseason spectators in 2004, which apparently motivated Bobby Valentine’s squad. Lotte finished second this season behind the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, giving it home-field advantage for the best-of three series starting Saturday at 2 p.m. in Chiba.
“It’s hard to wait for a team to lose and pray to get into the playoffs,” Marines outfielder Benny Agbayani said.
“People understood the way Bobby wants to program (better) this year. They started playing Bobby Valentine’s baseball.”
Last season was Valentine’s second as Chiba’s manager and his first since 1995. The Marines ripped off one of the best seasons in club history this year, finishing 84-49-3.
Seibu (67-69) didn’t finish above .500 but still held the final playoff position by three games over the Orix Buffaloes.
Lotte finished 18 1/2 games ahead of this weekend’s foe, and the only advantage it enjoys is playing on its home field for all three games (if necessary).
“They seem calm, and that’s how they should feel,” Valentine said of his team. “They’re very calm and confident.”
Agbayani and teammate Matt Franco both understand “Bobby Valentine’s baseball” very well. Valentine led the New York Mets to the World Series in 2000, and both Agbayani and Franco played for Valentine then as well.
There is a dearth of postseason experience elsewhere on Chiba’s roster, but those who have been there before are doing everything to make sure no one settles for the good feeling of just being in the playoffs.
“We’ve got to let them know that once you get to the second round, it is a different atmosphere,” Agbayani said. “This is your season right here. Once you get here, it’s all or nothing. We’re playing for who is going to be the best team in Japan.”
Having any postseason experience on the roster is an asset, and Valentine said his team would respond when the stakes were raised.
“I don’t think you can teach experience,” Valentine said. “It will be a wonderful thing to watch develop.”
This year’s success has changed the Marines fans as well. Playoff tickets sold out in less than two hours for the series with Seibu.
The Marines are opening practice Friday to the public before hosting a pep rally in front of Chiba Marine Stadium on Friday night.
Chiba fans are camped outside the stadium behind right field, and some have been there since Monday. The Marines fans’ tent city is growing each day. In addition to supporting the Marines, fans are hoping to get the best position in the general admission outfield seats.
“I think many of them have had dreams of watching baseball games when other fans are home thinking of next year,” Valentine said. “I’m glad we have the chance of fulfilling those dreams for them.”
But it will take more than enthusiasm to unseat the defending Japan Series champs, even on Chiba’s home turf. The Lions bring Daisuke Matsuzaka (14-13, 2.30 ERA) and a powerful lineup, although they will be without Venezuelan slugger Alex Cabrera (broken arm).
Among the screaming fans this weekend will be major-league scouts checking out Matsuzaka and his powerful arm.
“He’s a very good pitcher,” Agbayani said. “He will attack the zone and come right after you. He’s probably one of the top pitchers, but you want to face the best. Win or lose, you want to face the best and give it your all.”
The Marines will send Shunsuke Watanabe (15-4, 2.17 ERA) to the hill in Game 1.
Although Matsuzaka has the reputation, Valentine likes his ace’s chances in the opener.
“(Seibu has) what most people consider to be the best pitcher in Japan,” Valentine said. “We have a guy who is establishing himself as one of the best pitchers in Japan. He’s pitched big games, and he’s pitched consistently.”
Chiba will look to maintain its winning ways with the same attitude that got it back into the playoffs.
“They’re a big, strong team with some guys who can pop it right out of the park, but our No. 1 thing is that we’re kind of a scrappy team,” Agbayani said. “We’re not going to give anything up.”
Agbayani is one key returnee to Chiba’s lineup. He missed more than 30 games this season because of a torn quadriceps, spending time in the minors to hone his swing and fully recover. He hated not being on the field every day, but Agbayani’s return is coming at the right time for the Marines.
“I just wanted to make sure I was ready for this,” he said. “You really want to be 100 percent for the playoffs. If I wasn’t ready, I would tell (Valentine). I wouldn’t want to hurt the team.”
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