The Chiba Lotte Marines might be about to learn a lot about themselves. Namely, the Pacific League club is about to find out just how prepared they are for the battles ahead in the race for the final spot in the Pacific League Climax Series.
The Marines are in the driver’s seat at the moment. Lotte is 51-50-1 and in third place in the PL, making them the current owners, or perhaps renters, of the final spot in the PL postseason. Above them are the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, seven games clear in second place.
The more pressing matter for the Marines is from behind,as they look over their shoulders at the Seibu Lions, 3½ games back in fourth place.
That only adds to the importance of the Marines’ upcoming gauntlet of big games over the next several days.
The team heads into an important week on a positive note, having taken two of three from the Orix Buffaloes over the weekend. Next up is a three-game set against the Fighters (who were scheduled to throw ace Shohei Otani at them on Tuesday), at home, before a big series against the Lions at Seibu Prince Dome. From there, it’s a flight to Fukuoka for two games against the PL-leading Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.
That’s no easy stretch of games, especially not for a team that’s spent most of the season hovering around or below the .500 watermark.
The Marines were actually a season-worst seven games under .500 after a loss to the Hawks on July 22. They responded by winning their next seven games, which, as luck would have it, came as the Lions were caught in the throes of a 13-game losing streak. From July 23 to Aug. 8, Lotte was 14-6. The team has fallen back to earth a bit recently with a 2-4 mark over the last six games.
Improved pitching was a big part of the team’s success during that run in late July, as players such as Yuki Karakawa and Yuta Omine stepped up their games alongside Hideaki Wakui and Ayumu Ishikawa. Lotte’s starting pitchers had wining decisions in all seven games of the win streak.
Even after the streak was snapped, timely hitting helped them take games in which the starters weren’t up to the task. That same penchant for big hits, however, has dried up recently, which led to the change in fortune recently.
The uptick on the mound seems to have stuck. Omine, for example, was good again on Sunday, but the offense remains both a mystery and a big key in keeping the season going into late October.
While finishing third doesn’t seem like much of a reward, because of how unfairly the deck is stacked against the third-place team in the postseason, the Marines have navigated these waters before.
In 2010, Lotte beat Orix ace Chihiro Kaneko on the final day of the season to qualify for the Climax Series. Once in, the Marines defied expectations by beating the Lions on the road in the first stage, and then somehow overcame a Hawks team that was playing with a one-game advantage and hosted every game of the second stage.
The Marines went on to upset the Central League champion Chunichi Dragons in a tightly contested Japan Series that required a full seven games and was a few innings away from needing an eighth.
Simply put, the Marines just want to get in the dance, and see what happens.
If the late-July, early-August version of the Marines, the one with good pitching and clutch hitting, is for real, the next eight games may help prove it.
If that surge was fool’s gold, then the next eight games might expose Lotte and give the Lions a chance to pounce.