This one should be good.
After a long season and two rounds of playoffs, 12 teams have been whittled down to two. Beginning this weekend, those teams, the Central League champion Hiroshima Carp and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, champions of the Pacific League, will compete in the Japan Series.
The Carp and their rabid fanbase have waited for this since 1991, the last year the team reached the Japanese Fall Classic. After over two decades of B-Class finishes, the Carp harkened back to the glory days of the Aka-Heru era with a franchise-record 89-win season that was tops in Japan. Now they stand just four wins away from completing the rebirth with their first Japan Series title since 1984.
“I think it’s going to be a tough fight. We’ll just play Carp baseball and put forth our maximum effort,” manager Koichi Ogata said last weekend after Hiroshima clinched its berth with a win over the Yokohama BayStars in Game 4 of the Central League Climax Series Final Stage.
Nippon Ham’s wait for another title hasn’t been nearly as long, but the Pa. League outfit has its own demons to exorcise.
The Fighters won the crown in 2006, but reached the Japan Series only to fall short in 2007, 2009 and 2012 — the only losses by Pacific League teams in the title series since 2002. They had to knock off the two-time defending champion Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in order to make it back and will face the Carp with Japanese baseball’s ultimate X-Factor, Shohei Otani, at their disposal.
“It’s our responsibility to represent the league in the Japan Series,” manager Hideki Kuriyama said after the Fighters clinched the Climax Series title. “It’s a different kind of pressure, but our guys are all focused on trying to win.”
One of the most intriguing matchups of the series will be a Carp offense that led Japan in runs scored and home runs, facing a Fighters pitching staff that led NPB with a 3.06 team ERA while playing in the offense-happy PL.
There will be plenty for the Fighters to watch out for in a Carp lineup filled with potential threats, chief among them Seiya Suzuki, who hit .335 with 29 home runs and 95 RBIs this season. Four Carp players hit at least 19 home runs and the dynamic table-setting duo at the top of the order, Kosuke Tanaka and Ryosuke Kikuchi, each had 13 themselves.
The fleet-footed Carp aren’t totally dependent on the long ball either, having topped NPB with 35 triples and finishing second to Nippon Ham with 118 stolen bases. They also have players such as Takahiro Arai and Yoshihiro Maru, among others, who’ve been known to come up with a big hit or two.
At some point the Carp will have to deal with Otani, who put on a show in the final game of the PL Climax Series, toying with the Japanese velocity record by hitting 165 kph three times in the ninth inning of Game 5 against the Hawks.
A blister limited Otani to 21 appearances on the mound, but he still managed to finish third in the PL with 174 strikeouts and remains the best pitcher in Japan.
There is a drop-off after Otani, but Hirotoshi Masui has been among the top starters in NPB recently and Kohei Arihara and Hirotoshi Takanashi are coming off decent seasons.
The problem for Nippon Ham will be closing out games, which has been an adventure since Masui lost his job as the closer and was moved into the rotation. Anthony Bass had a hero turn in relief during the last game of the Climax Series and Naoki Miyanishi and Keisuke Tanimoto have proven their worth in the past. But the team has to deal with the absence of Chris Martin, who was taken off the roster on Wednesday because of an injury to his left ankle.
Even so, Kuriyama will hope to avoid too many anxious moments late in games against the efficient Carp hitters.
Hiroshima’s own rotation is led by a pair of probable Sawamura Award candidates in Kris Johnson (15-7, 2.15 ERA) and Yusuke Nomura (16-3, 2.71).
Behind them is veteran Hiroki Kuroda, who will retire after the series and could cap a 20-year career with Hiroshima, broken up by a seven-year stint in the major leagues, with his first championship.
“The Japan Series will be the end. I’ve decided to hang it up,” Kuroda was quoted as saying by Kyodo News on Tuesday. “I’ve been shown an excellent dream with an excellent team.
“And now I want to go out with a smile on my face, all of us celebrating a championship pouring beer on each other.”
Things get a bit uncertain after Kuroda, (rookie Akitake Okada got the ball in Game 4 of the Climax Series Final Stage) until Johnson and Nomura come back around.
In the pen the Carp feature Jay Jackson, who led the CL with 37 holds and struck out 89 in 68⅓ innings and closer Shota Nakazaki.
Hiroshima’s pitchers will face a Fighters team that is as comfortable causing death by a thousand sacrifice bunts as it is knocking the ball over the fence.
Nippon Ham led the Pacific League in sac bunts (178), were a close second in home runs (121) and have the 2016 leaders in both categories, Takuya Nakashima and Brandon Laird, in the lineup.
Sho Nakata, who had 25 home runs, is a slugger the Carp should tread lightly around, as is Otani, who hit 22. The Fighters have other quality bats as well in players such as Kensuke Kondo, Daikan Yoh and Haruki Nishikawa.
The PL champs finished tied for second in runs scored in the league and their .266 team batting average was second to the Carp among all NPB teams.
Both teams are good in the field, and this series will feature two of the best in Japan at their respective positions in dynamic Carp second baseman Kikuchi and Fighters shortstop Nakashima.
The Fighters and Carp met three times during the regular season, with the Carp taking two of three from the Fighters in Hokkaido.
There is a lot more riding on the outcome of this series, which has the potential to be highly competitive with a pair of teams that do so many things so well.