Central League teams jockey for position in critical week


When the dust settles in the Central League, the top three teams — whoever they may be — might look back at this week as the period when everything either began to come together or started to fall apart.

The Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants begin the week atop the standings — the Tigers holding a slim advantage on percentage points — with the Chunichi Dragons in third place just 2 1/2 games behind. The fourth-place Tokyo Yakult Swallows are eight games further back, but are 5 1/2 out of a spot in the top three.

To use a golf term, this week resembles the third day of a tournament, often called moving day, and all four teams will be jostling to put themselves in position for a run at the pennant.

In first place by the slimmest of margins, the Tigers have maintained a steady pace over the past few weeks.

Behind Craig Brazell and Kenji Johjima, the Tigers got the job done at the plate and pitched well enough to hang around just long enough to sneak past the Giants.

They open the week with three games against the last-place Yokohama BayStars, which provides an opportunity to pad their lead, before hitting the road for a three-game set against the Giants beginning Friday.

Meanwhile, the Kyojin start in slightly unfamiliar territory — second place and looking up at the Hanshin.

Things will be much worse by end of the week if manager Tatsunori Hara can’t cook up a formula to knock the Giants out of the collective funk they’ve been mired in.

Terrible pitching and a stuttering offense led to a dismal 3-6 record against the league’s bottom three teams over the last nine games.

The Giants somewhat got themselves back on track at the plate against the BayStars last weekend — largely riding the bat of a red-hot Edgar Gonzalez — which provides some hope as they head to Nagoya for a three-game series with the Dragons.

Yomiuri is ahead of Chunichi by 2 1/2 games in the standings, so it won’t take much of a slip-up for the Giants to be the third-place team when they host the Dragons in a week’s time.

Six games out of first place in the not-too-distant past, the Dragons have a chance to end the week on top.

They’ve won seven out of their last nine games and have played well as the top two teams have slid off their once sizable perches.

The Swallows are the CL’s hottest team — 10-2 in their last 12 games — and face the Hiroshima Carp with a chance to improve their position in the race for third. They follow that up with what could be a crucial road series against the Dragons.

The pennant won’t be decided this week, but the next six games will have an impact on the race.

A big week by the Giants or Tigers could effectively put the pennant away.

Alternatively, the Dragons could place themselves in position to make an improbable title run, while the Swallows could play their way into the top three or out of contention altogether.

It’s moving day in the CL. Four teams have their bags packed, but by the end of the week, only three will have taken a step toward punching a ticket into the climax series.