Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

Lions counting on quality starting pitching to set the tone in playoffs

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

The pitching staff of the Seibu Lions has put up some scary numbers in 2018. Not scary-good numbers either.

The recently crowned Pacific League champions entered Wednesday’s games with a 4.23 team ERA that ranked 10th in NPB. They’re eighth in Japan in fielding independent pitching at 4.57, according to Deltagraphs. They’ve allowed 588 earned runs, second-most in NPB.

Of course, none of that stopped the Lions from claiming the PL pennant, and doing so without ever dropping out of first place. It shouldn’t derail their Japan Series plans either.

The season-long marathon is coming to an end. The playoffs are a different animal, and the Lions are better equipped for it on the mound than their numbers might suggest.

For one, the Lions have an ace. Yusei Kikuchi (14-4, 3.08 ERA) has been one of the top pitchers in Japan over the past two seasons and is an incredible weapon for manager Hatsuhiko Tsuji. Kikuchi has a 3.04 ERA in his last 88 2/3 innings and even finally slayed the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks giant in his 19th career start against the Kyushu club.

Outside of Kikuchi, Shinsaburo Tawata (16-5, 3.81) has worked himself into a nice groove with four straight quality starts, having allowed just three earned runs over that span.

Daiki Enokida, who threw seven innings of one-run ball against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters on Tuesday night, has also given the team solid innings since being acquired in a trade with the Hanshin Tigers in March. He finished the season 11-4 with a 3.32 ERA.

The postseason is more sprint than marathon, and With three pitchers they can lean on, the Lions won’t necessarily have too dip far into the lower half of their rotation in really key spots.

Seibu earned a berth in the final stage of the Climax Series by clinching the pennant. So while the Hawks and Fighters square off in the first stage, and use their top two pitchers, the Lions can rest and get their pitching lined up.

The team also begins that series with a one-game advantage and would be able to deploy its top pitcher twice if needed. They would be able to throw their best pitchers more than once in the Japan Series as well, should they get there.

Basically, Seibu can play to its pitching strengths during the playoffs and hope its three main starters are up to the task.

The question then, is the Lions bullpen.

That group has been one of the worst in Japan this season. The Lions actually seemed to have gotten things turned around in August, when the Seibu bullpen posted a 2.27 ERA, per Deltagraphs, that was the best in NPB. The Lions relievers have fallen back to earth since Sept. 1, posting a 4.21 ERA.

If the Seibu bats go cold at any point, the relievers could be under the gun with an important game on the line. They’ve found a closer in Deunte Heath, who has 13 saves since joining the club May 15. They just have to get him the ball.

The Lions’ offense is strong enough to cover up a lot of flaws, but Seibu will have to also prevent runs at some point.

For all their pitching troubles during the regular season, the Lions can consolidate things in the postseason. They already have three starters they should be able lean on. If the bullpen is also up to the challenge, good luck keeping this team caged in late October.