Although the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks failed to repeat as Pacific League champions, they have what it takes to beat the new champs, the Seibu Lions, and reach the Japan Series for the fourth time in five years.
The race for the brass ring heats up again on Wednesday as each league’s Climax Series Final Stage gets under way. The Pacific League battle will be at the Lions’ home, MetLife Dome, and the Central League’s at Hiroshima’s Mazda Stadium, where the CL champions Carp will take on the Yomiuri Giants. Both hosts begin the six-game stages with one win and will advance to the Japan Series should the stage end in a tie.
The Hawks, who finished second, needed three games to overcome the PL’s third-place club, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. The Giants, on the other hand, finished third but swept the second-place Tokyo Yakult Swallows over the weekend in the CL’s first stage. While the Giants were a good match against Yakult, they will need more than they showed during the regular season to vanquish three-time defending champion Hiroshima.
In the Pacific League, it is not hard to see how SoftBank could upset Seibu. The Lions finished 13-12 against the Hawks this year, after winning their first three games of the season. Two of those first Seibu wins were earned by right-hander Fabio Castillo, who is now out with a season-ending injury.
The Hawks are missing the PL’s 2017 MVP, closer Dennis Sarfate, but they have hardly missed a beat with understudy closer Yuito Mori, who led the league with 37 saves.
The Lions also had back-of-the-bullpen issues this season. Castillo was moved out of the rotation and saved three games before getting hurt. Former closer Tatsushi Masuda saved 13, but also went 2-4 over the season with a 5.17 ERA.
Seibu also signed former Carp pitcher Deunte Heath away from an independent minor league team. He went 4-1 with 13 saves, nine holds and a 2.50 ERA. The right-hander also struck out 53 of the 158 batters he faced.
Then there is the question of two Lions pitchers, lefty ace Yusei Kikuchi and fourth starter Ken Togame. On Sept. 28, Kikuchi won his first game against SoftBank after going 0-13 in his first 18 career games against the Hawks.
Although trailblazing baseball analyst Bill James recently cautioned against taking stock in the career results between an individual batter and pitcher, it is hard to look away from how well Hawks third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda has hit against Togame.
In 52 career plate appearances versus the right-hander, the Hawks captain is hitting .619 with nine home runs, four doubles and 10 walks. Togame is 4-12 in his career against SoftBank.
The best news for Seibu as far as Togame is concerned is the Lions’ one-win advantage. If Seibu’s top three starters, Kikuchi, Shinsaburo Tawata and lefty Daiki Enokida, pitch well, the stage could be over before Togame gets a chance to test his luck.
The Lions outscored the Hawks 133-131 during their 25 regular season games, and their head-to-head batting results were equally close. But the Hawks were better at hitting singles, triples and home runs, and were more successful at stealing bases.
The Hawks’ Achilles’ heel could be walks. During the season, Hawks hitters walked just 408 times, while their pitchers issued a league-worst 539. The Lions drew a league-high 566. The other area where the Lions have a big edge is in turning double plays.
In the Central League, it is hard to see any hidden advantage for the Giants. They may gain some extra mojo trying to win it all for outgoing manager Yoshinobu Takahashi, and perhaps ace Tomoyuki Sugano’s no-hitter in the first stage finale will provide a boost. But the Carp, who lost the final stage last season to the third-place Yokohyama BayStars, will not be taking the six games lightly.
The Carp are a good base stealing team who excel at turning double plays and rarely hit into them. They do everything better than the Giants except draw walks, and that is only by a slight margin. Head to head during the season, Hiroshima hit more doubles, triples and home runs, and drew more walks.
The Carp won 17 of their 25 games against Yomiuri and tied one. That record does not reflect the true strengths of these teams, but nevertheless, the Giants will have trouble finding that extra gas needed to get past the Carp.