Pennant-winning Dragons face stiff test from Swallows in second stage


Staff Writer

In what’s quickly becoming a rite of winter, the Chunichi Dragons are in the final stage of the Central League Climax Series, which was introduced in 2007.

The Dragons spent most of 2011 looking up at the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in the CL standings, before turning it on late and hauling down the Birds in October to claim their second straight CL pennant.

Now, starting Wednesday, they’ll have to go through that same Yakult squad in order to reach the Japan Series for the fourth time since 2006.

The Swallows are in the final stage for the first time after vanquishing the rival Yomiuri Giants in the first stage. Still stinging after being swept by Chunichi in a four-game set in Nagoya in October, the Swallows get a second chance at dethroning the champions.

Here are five questions ahead of their series:

Can Chunichi find its offense?

The Dragons fielded Japan’s worst offense during the regular season, placing last among NPB teams with a .228 batting average and 419 runs scored.

Many of their shortcomings can be traced to the severe drop-off suffered by the trio of Masahiko Morino, Tony Blanco and reigning CL MVP Kazuhiro Wada, who all had huge years in 2010. Wada started to come around late, hitting .314 and driving in 13 runs over the team’s final 16 games, as did Blanco, who hit .340 with six home runs and 12 RBIs over the same span to win monthly MVP honors for October.

Motonobu Tanishige came back to earth after shouldering the load in August and September and is a threat. Still, Morino’s lack of production is a concern for the Dragons, who might ask a lot out of Yohei Oshima and Ryosuke Hirata.

How big is home-field advantage?

If not for a late swoon, Yakult would be hosting this series. The Dragons caught up to Yakult down the stretch, however, setting themselves to host the series.

Nagoya Dome is a pitcher’s park that plays right into Chunichi’s strength on the mound and adeptness at preventing runs. They probably benefit from playing at home more than any other team and will be tough to beat.

How does the Swallows’ pitching stack up?

The Swallows needed starters Shohei Tateyama, Masanori Ishikawa, Katsuki Akagawa and Kyohei Muranaka, who threw 5⅔ innings out of the bullpen, to get past the Giants. They’ll also be without the injured Yoshinori Sato.

While that may leave Yakult a bit thin early in the series, the situation is not as dire as it seems given the Dragons’ troubles at the plate. Chunichi’s one-game advantage, however, could complicate matters.

Tatsuyoshi Masubuchi could get a start early on, a scenario that would give Tateyama and Ishikawa four days’ rest for possible appearances in Games 2 and 3. Muranaka pitched well out of the bullpen, but could thrust back into a starting role later in the series.

Thanks to Muranaka, the Swallows didn’t dip too far into the bullpen against Yomiuri, meaning relievers Takehiko Oshimoto, Kenichi Matsuoka, Tony Barnette and Lim Chang Yong are well rested.

Can Morioka have the last laugh?

Injuries forced Yakult infielder Ryosuke Morioka into action in the first stage and he delivered in a big way.

At the plate he was 4-for-9 with an RBI, and played well in the field, meaning the team didn’t need to shift 40-year-old third baseman Shinya Miyamoto to shortstop.

Morioka was drafted by the Dragons in 2003 and played in just 39 games before being waived in 2008. He’ll be playing a key role in his return to Nagoya and on Monday said he was ready for some revenge.

Can the Dragons pitch their way back into the Japan Series?

As they usually are, the Dragons fielded one of the best pitching staffs in Japan, posting a CL-best 2.46 team ERA. Chunichi held Yakult to a .234 average and recorded a 2.13 ERA in their 24 meetings this year.

Chunichi likely sends 18-game winner Kazuki Yoshimi to the mound in Game 1. Yoshimi (18-3, 1.65 ERA in the regular season) faced the Swallows six times this year and was 4-0 with a 1.22 ERA.

Chen Wei-yin (8-10, 2.68) and Maximo Nelson (10-14, 2.54) are also solid options in the rotation. Daisuke Yamai and Yudai Kawai will factor in as well, with Yoshimi lurking in the event of a Game 6.

Out of the bullpen the Dragons have arguably Japan’s best reliever in Takuya Asao, who went 7-2 with 10 saves, 45 holds and 100 strikeouts over 87⅓ innings in 79 appearances. Behind him, Hitoki Iwase, Japan’s all-time saves leader, will close things out.