The race to the Japan Series begins Saturday as the Central and Pacific League Climax Series’ first stages get underway in Tokyo and Fukuoka.
Each league’s second-place team will host their third-place league rival in the three-game first stages. Each first-stage winner will advance to a six-game final stage against that league’s champion.
The final-stage winners will then meet in the Japan Series, starting on Oct. 27.
The CL first stage will see the Tokyo Yakult Swallows host the Yomiuri Giants at Jingu Stadium, while in the PL’s postseason opener the Fukuoka SoftBank host the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. If a series ends in a tie, the second-place team will advance to the final stage.
The clash at Jingu will likely open with Yasuhiro “Ryan” Ogawa going for the Swallows. The right-hander has eight straight winning decisions against the Giants.
The Giants’ cleanup hitter, 22-year-old Kazuma Okamoto, who this season became NPB’s youngest player to bat .300 with 100 RBIs and 30 home runs, said his focus is on contributing any way he could.
“I want to be ready to get something from each and every pitch,” said Okamoto, who slugged 33 homers, said Thursday. “It doesn’t matter what it is. I’ll take a walk to get on base.
“I’ll try to lay off pitches in the zone and put good swings on fat pitches.”
With Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano having pitched an inning of relief on Tuesday, Nobutaka Imamura is expected to get the call for the Giants. Imamura was 6-2 this season with a 3.86 ERA.
Sugano, who is a good bet to wrap up his second straight Sawamura Award, is likely to go in Game 2 on Sunday.
Yakult will likely send Juri Hara to the mound in Game 2. Although Hara finished the season with a 6-7 record, he was 5-2 since rejoining the starting rotation on July 18.
The Swallows may have finished more than six games ahead of the Giants in the standings, but it is hard to call the Giants underdogs. Yomiuri hit for more power than its regular-season opponent during the season, drew more walks, scored more runs.
The main strength of the Swallows, who were outscored during the regular season, is getting on base.
Yakult’s biggest advantage may also be playing at home, where it went 40-27 this year.
In Fukuoka, the Hawks will be taking on a team that beat them like a drum for much of the season. As of July 22, the Fighters had defeated the Hawks 12 times in 16 games. But Nippon Ham only managed one more win against SoftBank the rest of the season.
The Hawks, who lost closer and 2017 MVP Dennis Sarfate early in the season, still led both leagues with 44 saves. The club got yet another MVP-caliber season from center fielder Yuki Yanagita, who headlines a powerful offense that did everything well this year except draw lots of walks.
In addition to Sarfate, the Hawks will likely be without two key players due to injury, first baseman Seiichi Uchikawa and regular shortstop Kenta Imamiya.
The Hawks’ three starters appear set as Ariel Miranda for Game 1 followed by Kodai Senga in Game 2 and Nao Higashihama if needed in Game 3. In his only start against the Fighters in September, Miranda pitched into the seventh inning without allowing a run.
Two Fighters starting pitchers who seem likely to see action are Naoyuki Uwasawa and Nick Martinez. Uwasawa was 4-2 against the Hawks this season with a 2.20 ERA, while Martinez went 1-2 with a 1.86 ERA.
The big injury question the Fighters face is third baseman Brandon Laird, who has been struggling with oblique muscle pain on the left side of his rib cage and is unlikely to see action.