The interleague season: Japanese baseball's 'wild card'

by Wayne Graczyk

Japan pro baseball does not have a “wild card” team that gets into postseason playoffs as do the American and National Leagues, but the koryu-sen (interleague) period that got under way May 9 may be considered the Japanese version of a wild card in the sense that anything can happen.

The schedule of games matching Central League teams vs. Pacific League clubs continues through June 18 and could be a make-or-break period for some of the 12 Japanese teams.

For six weeks, the two leagues become one in an officially sponsored “season.” The sponsor is Nihon Seimei (Life Insurance), and the team with the best record will win a “title” and collect some prize money.

The Yomiuri Giants in the CL and the Seibu Lions in the PL were the first-place teams when the interleague battles began, but will they be there when intraleague play resumes June 23?

Last year, the first for interleague play in this country, the Chiba Lotte Marines played their best baseball in late May and early June and won what could even be considered a 36-game “tournament” with a 24-11-1 record.

Bobby Valentine’s Marines then went on to win the PL title, Japan Series and Asia Series championships.

On the other hand, the Chunichi Dragons were doing just fine in the 2005 CL pennant race until they started playing teams in the opposite league.

The Dragons went 15-21 against the Pa Leaguers and could not recover when the regular play resumed. Chunichi finished second in the CL to the Hanshin Tigers who posted a nice 21-13-2 mark in interleague competition.

In 2004, when there was no interleague play, the Dragons were hot in June, took a lead in the Central standings and went on to take the pennant.

There are several factors that come into play when the CL teams play PL teams. The designated hitter is one.

Pacific League pitchers have to bat when the Central League opponent is the home team. Some pitchers just can’t hit worth a lick and, when a PL hurler does get a hit, it causes embarrassment to the CL guy who gave it up.

Last year two Pacific League moundsmen hit home runs off the Yomiuri Giants at Tokyo Dome: Jeremy “J.P.” Powell of the Orix Buffaloes and Tsutomu Iwamoto of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

Powell is now with the Giants, and Iwamoto retired, but Central League chuckers should be warned not to let up on their fellow pitchers in the Pa League when they come to bat.

Then some teams have to figure what to do with the regular DH.

Especially the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and Nobuhiko Matsunaka, who will most likely play left field when his team plays in CL stadiums.

Another thing is this: When you’re playing the teams in your own league and you lose on a given night when there is a full schedule, you can take comfort in the fact that two other teams will also lose (unless there is a tie). The most you will drop is one game against the three teams who win.

However, during interleague play, you could taste defeat while the other five teams in your own league come out winners, so you lose a game against everybody else. A couple nights like that, and you can take a significant drop in the standings very quickly.

A couple of Central League players recently gave their thoughts on the koryu-sen.

Tokyo Yakult Swallows second baseman Greg LaRocca said, “I like it, because you get to see some other cities than the ones in your own league. It’s a nice change of pace.”

However, he added he was not looking forward to playing in the bigger ballparks such as Fukuoka’s Yahoo Dome with its deep power alleys and high home run fence.

LaRocca gave us a taste of how much he likes PL pitching when he hammered the Seibu Lions for four homers in the first two games of the “ILP” season May 9-10.

Dragons first baseman Tyrone Woods said he doesn’t particularly care for the interleague action because of the expanded travel and stretched-out map of Japanese baseball.

The Dragons’ home is Nagoya which is not more than a two-hour Shinkansen ride to the other CL cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and Hiroshima.

“Now we have to fly to Sapporo and Fukuoka and go up to Sendai,” he said, indicating the daily routine is more tiring. That is especially true when there is travel on a game day.

Ideas for revisions of last year’s interleague schedule and a rules change were not adopted. Several players, Japanese and foreigners, said they would like to see the 36-game koryu-sen card split into two 18-game segments.

But, no. Because of the sponsor and other considerations, it has remained as one block.

Then there was Valentine’s interesting idea for a “reverse DH” whereby the rule would be used — not in the PL parks, but in the Central League venues.

That way, fans in places such as Chiba Marine Stadium would see the pitchers hit — something they don’t normally watch during regular play.

With that, a reminder the Tokyo Yakult Swallows offer a two-for-one “pair ticket” deal. You get two “A” seats for 3,900 yen or two “B” seats for 3,100 yen. This offer is good for any Swallows game at Jingu Stadium, except when Yakult is playing the Yomiuri Giants or Hanshin Tigers.

So, if you’re in Tokyo, get your group together, make sure you have an even number to get the maximum savings, get out there and see the Swallows in an interleague contest.

Upcoming series include Yakult vs. SoftBank May 19-21, the Rakuten Eagles May 24-25 and Orix Buffaloes June 2-4.

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