TOKOROZAWA, SAITAMA PREF. - Seibu Lions lefty Yusei Kikuchi could be a key to which team the Pacific League sends to play in the Japan Series.
The Lions host the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in the best-of-three first stage of the PL Climax Series. Because NPB declares the higher seed the winner of any CS stage ending in a tie, the Lions will advance to the final stage with one win and a tie.
Kikuchi went 8-0 against the Eagles this season and is 17-4 with a 1.74 ERA against Rakuten in his career. Kikuchi, coming off the best season of his career, may be the best starter on either team, but the Eagles starting staff has more depth to it and on Saturday, he’ll be squaring off against Rakuten’s top gun, Takahiro Norimoto.
“Because my opponent is Norimoto, I really need to prevent them from scoring first,” Kikuchi said after Friday’s practice at MetLife Dome. “If he gets a lead, he can find another gear.”
This season, Norimoto posted a 15-7 record with the PL’s second-best ERA (2.57) en route to his fourth straight PL strikeout crown. Behind him are former Lions ace Takayuki Kishi (8-10, 2.76) and Manabu Mima (11-8, 3.26) in the starting rotation that posted a 3.27 ERA — the lowest in NPB.
The Eagles pitching will need to be in top form because the Lions scored an NPB-high 690 runs. Seibu led the PL in batting average and doubles, while hitting 153 home runs. They were also the best base stealing team in either league, swiping 129 bases, while being caught just 40 times.
Lions manager Hatsuhiko Tsuji, however, said he wasn’t expecting his hitters to be able to overpower the Eagles.
“Because of the quality of their pitching, I’m not expecting a lot of runs to be scored,” Tsuji said. “But if we don’t make unusual errors or issue needless walks, we will be competitive.
“We’ve talked about how we’ve played against Rakuten this season, and the players are all confident. We will be positive in these games — but I doubt it will be easy to have fun.”
Rakuten’s offense has been buoyed by the return to form of dynamic shortstop Eigoro Mogi, and the Eagles have power from their foreign trio of Zelous Wheeler, Carlos Peguero and Japhet Amador. But manager Masataka Nashida’s lineup contains several power-free zones, making it tough to consistently keep up with the Lions’ offense.
Seibu’s other starting pitchers are likely to be Ken Togame and Ryoma Nogami. The two had a combined 19-17 record with a 3.53 ERA in their 44 starts this season, but Togame is 10-4 with a 2.89 ERA in his career against Rakuten.
If Kikuchi and the Lions’ big offense proves decisive here, then the question will be whether or not the lefty can finally defeat the league champion Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. As league champion, SoftBank will host the first-stage champion in the six-game final stage at Yafuoku Dome.
Kikuchi went 0-4 this season against SoftBank, whom he has never beaten in 17 career games. In two spring games at MetLife this season, he allowed six runs over 15 innings, but was hammered for seven runs in each of his last two starts against the Hawks — both at Yafuoku Dome.
The southpaw has a 7.89 ERA and an 0-7 record in nine career games at SoftBank’s home park.