The Tokyo Yakult Swallows faced the Yomiuri Giants 24 times this season and for the first time in 11 years proved themselves to be the better team.
If they don’t do it again, it’ll be all for naught.
The crosstown rivals will meet in the first-stage of the Central League Climax Series, a three-game showdown that begins Saturday at Jingu Stadium.
The Swallows won the season series 12-8-4 and were 4-1-2 against the Kyojin at Jingu.
Yakult would be awaiting the first-stage winner in the final stage if not for a late-season swoon that cost it the CL pennant. It will need to get things turned around quickly against a Yomiuri team that’s playing its best baseball down the stretch and would love nothing more than to put the Swallows back in their place.
Here are five questions ahead of their postseason battle for Tokyo supremacy:
How beat up are the Swallows?
Injuries have wreaked havoc on the Swallows over the second half of the season and could play a big role in this series.
Shortstop Shingo Kawabata will miss the postseason with a wrist injury, as will Takahiro Araki, who was a candidate to replace Kawabata, after suffering a fracture in his left leg.
Additionally, while 41-year-old third baseman Shinya Miyamoto is operating at a high level both in the field and at the plate, he’s doing it on two bad hamstrings.
Catcher Ryoji Aikawa has played through a fractured thumb since late August and starter Shohei Tateyama is pitching with a problem in his hand that may require surgery in the offseason.
How does the Swallows’ pitching stack up?
Manager Junji Ogawa should feel confident throwing Masanori Ishikawa (10-9, 2.73 ERA)and Tateyama (11-5, 2.05) in the first two games, but finding a third starter could be a problem with Yoshinori Sato still nursing an injury.
With Sato out, Katsuki Akagawa (6-3, 2.08) will likely get the call in a possible Game 3.
The bullpen lived on the edge for much of the season — and survived — but mostly ended the year on a sour note. Reliever Tony Barnette is back after a wrist injury, making the bridge to closer Lim Chang Yong much sturdier.
Can Yomiuri keep it going?
The Giants ended the season playing at a higher level than any team in Japan with the exception of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.
Alex Ramirez awoke at the plate in October — hitting .423 with five homers and 10 RBIs -and Hayato Sakamoto and Shinnosuke Abe ended the year on a high note as well.
Hisayoshi Chono was the CL’s best hitter, and the Giants lineup is deadly if the aforementioned trio get it going alongside him.
Rookie Hirokazu Sawamura emerged as a top line pitcher over the second half of the season and Dicky Gonzalez’s strong return from a late injury deepens the rotation. Long relief is a question mark, but late-inning fireman Tetsuya Yamaguchi and closer Yuya Kubo have proven they can be counted on in big spots.
The Giants haven’t played since Oct. 22, but the Swallows could be in trouble if the Kyojin’s late-season performance carries over.
Will Sawamura shine or wilt?
The Giants lost out on college pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano on Thursday, but last year’s draft-day prize will be thrust into the spotlight in this series.
Sawamura is much better than his 11-11 record suggests. The durable rookie threw 200 innings this season, posting a 2.02 ERA, 174 strikeouts and 0.97 WHIP.
He cut down on the mistakes and performed much better over the latter part of the year, ending up as one of the best pitchers in the CL.
Sawamura will likely toe the rubber in one of the first two games and will have to overcome a Swallows lineup that has the talent and experience to beat him.
Which veteran parties like it’s 2001?
Yomiuri’s Ramirez and Yakult’s Miyamoto find themselves on opposing sides 10 years after winning a CL pennant and Japan Series title together with the Swallows in 2001.
The Yomiuri lineup is at its most potent when Ramirez is hitting, and his bat is more than capable of carrying the Giants to the title. Hitting behind Chono and Abe, “Rami-chan” will get a chance to put his stamp on this series.
Miyamoto’s body is betraying him, but the veteran has been in vintage form at times despite the injuries.
The easy equation says Ramirez’s bat staying warm, equals the Giants moving on. Still, don’t be surprised if the sheer force of Miyamoto’s will inspires the injured birds.