Baseball | HIT AND RUN

Lower seeds face stacked deck during NPB's Climax Series

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

When the Hiroshima Carp lost Game 1 of the Central League Climax Series Final Stage, they found themselves trailing 2-0 in the six-game series. Ditto for the Chiba Lotte Marines in the Pacific League.

The math doesn’t quite add up there, and it becomes even more absurd when you consider that this is what NPB officials came up with as a way to decide a champion.

In the final stage of each Climax Series, NPB gives each league’s champion a one-game advantage in addition to home-field advantage throughout.

Which leaves the lower-seeded teams an almost impossible task to overcome, when you also consider they’ve already used their best pitchers to get through the first stage.

The deck is stacked too much in favor of the pennant winners and it’s beyond time for Japanese baseball to address the issue.

“I understand the idea of wanting to give the team that won the division an advantage,” Carp pitcher Bryan Bullington said. “You can’t do both. You can’t give them a 1-0 advantage and play all six games in their place.”

The process was more fair a few years ago in 2007, when the league champion still hosted the final stage, a five-game series, but teams began on equal footing.

That was the first year the CL utilized the system (the Pa League began in 2004), with the second-place Chunichi Dragons taking immediate advantage by beating the league-champion Yomiuri Giants to advance to the Japan Series.

The one-game advantage was instituted the very next season.

Japanese baseball is essentially trying to have its cake and eat it too, reaping the benefits of a playoff system while also trying to maintain a traditional showdown of pennant winners in the Japan Series.

The problem being that a playoff itself is an inherently unfair exercise to the league champions. The team that comes through a demanding season is generally the league’s best. A playoff, while exciting, simply restarts the race from the finish line and allows the trailing teams to benefit from a running start from the same position.

To alleviate that, NPB simply greases the wheels to ensure the league champions make it through, though that’s not always the case, as we saw in 2010 when the third-place Marines got hot late and rode that wave all the way to a Japan Series title.

League champions have earned some advantage, but what they get now is too much.

“It’s been done for reasons that happened a while ago, but it’s not fair, and I don’t know if it’s supposed to be fair or if they want it to be fair, but it certainly isn’t,” Bullington said.

If Japanese baseball wants to ensure the best team is crowned champion, then go back to the old system where the two pennant winners settled things.

If NPB wants a playoff system, at least be fair about it.

Either take away the one-game advantage in the final stage, or keep it and allow the lower-seeded team to host at least two games.

Presently, second- and third-place finishers can play a maximum of nine games before the Japan Series, with the second-place team able to host three and the third-place finisher on the road throughout.

“To me, I think you give everybody a chance to play a game at home during the playoffs, especially once you get to this round,” Bullington said. “If you’re going to have three teams out of six, then whoever wins that first stage, at least you get a couple of home games.”

The process needs to be changed and until it is lower-seeded teams will continue to battle both their respective league champion and the system.

All they, and future teams, can hope for is to take the advantage for themselves going forward.

“Coming in having to win four out of six is a pretty tough job to have to do,” Hiroshima slugger Brad Eldred remarked after the Carp’s final Climax Series game.

“The experience of having to go through this, I think, will give guys the motivation to want to be in that spot and be the first-place team to get that home field advantage for ourselves next year.”