Where else but Japanese baseball can a team lose Game 1 of a playoff series and show up at the ballpark the next day down 0-2?
That was the reality for the Chiba Lotte Marines Wednesday after their 10-inning, 3-2 loss to the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in Game 1 of the Pacific League Climax Series final stage. It was almost the same for the Yomiuri Giants, but the Kyojin managed a 4-1 victory over the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in the Central League’s final-stage opener. Of course, instead of being up 1-0 the Giants went back to Jingu Stadium with the series tied 1-1.
This wacky math has been the norm in Japanese baseball since 2008, the first season both the CL and PL began giving pennant winners a one-game advantage in each league’s championship series. So far, the 2010 Marines and 2014 Hanshin Tigers are the only teams to dig out of the hole and advance to the Japan Series.
This year’s Marines squad can still do the same, but it shouldn’t have to in the first place. The Marines should be down 0-1 and the Giants up 1-0. It’s mind-boggling that NPB continues to let playoff games be decided by old men in suits instead of the players on the field.
Simply put, the one-game advantage is long past its sell-by date.
The ostensible reason for it is to reward teams for winning the pennant. In practice, however, it veers into actively punishing teams for not winning the league title.
Pennant winners already enjoy a bye into the final stage and get every game of that series at home. The higher-seeded club starts off rested and with its pitching lined up. Conversely, the first-stage survivor has to burn through its top two or three pitchers just to reach the final stage, and when its top-line guys do come back, it’s often on short rest. The lower-seeded team also battles against NPB’s 12-inning limit, as tie games are essentially losses.
So what need is there for a one-game advantage when the deck is already stacked in the pennant winners’ favor?
Things were better, though not perfect, in 2007, the first year both leagues used a postseason format (the PL introduced a playoff system in 2004). Like now, the pennant winner was given an automatic berth into the final round (then five games) and hosted each game of that series.
The difference was the teams began on equal footing. The PL champion Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters beat the Marines in five games that year, while the second-place Chunichi Dragons upended the Giants to become the first non-pennant winner from the CL to reach the Japan Series.
The next season saw both leagues make the final stage a six-game series with the league champion granted an automatic one-game advantage.
Beside six games being a nonsensical number, the advantage reeked of a way to ensure pennant winners advanced to the Japan Series. This way everything remained nice and neat and linear, with only the two best regular-season teams vying to be crowned best in Japan.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that line of thinking. The simple solution, however, is to just put the league champions into the Japan Series. Otherwise, if there’s going to be a playoff system, reward teams that win the pennant, but don’t go overboard in doing so.
Playoff baseball is exciting and compelling. Of the teams that enter, only one ends its year with a victory, and momentum can hinge on each pitch or swing of the bat.
The people who run Japanese baseball should look to bottle and capitalize on that emotion. Instead they rob themselves, and the fans, of that by awarding phantom wins that actually take games off the field.
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