Most of NPB’s teams hit the 60-game mark last week, meaning this coronavirus-shortened season is around its halfway mark.
There should be, however, a little more urgency at the midpoint than in years past. There’s still a lot of season left, just not as much as usual.
The 2020 season started three months late because of the COVID-19 pandemic, leading NPB to reduce the schedule to 120 games. Additionally, the Central League, factoring in the need for makeup games, won’t stage a postseason and will send the pennant winner to the Japan Series. In the Pacific League, the normally three-team Climax Series will feature just two.
So with a shorter regular season and fewer postseason spots up for grabs, teams have to start considering how the races are shaping up.
That’s particularly true in the CL, where six teams are vying for one spot in the Japan Series — just like it used to be before 2007.
The Yomiuri Giants, last year’s CL champions, are currently at the head of the line with a 5.5-game lead in the standings.
The Kyojin went into last week looking to better their position and got started by breaking out the brooms against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.
Zelous Wheeler did a lot of the damage in that series with six hits and five RBIs.
Yomiuri wrapped up the week by taking two of three against the Chunichi Dragons.
There’s still plenty of time to chase down the Giants, but they’re not going to make it easy.
Yomiuri is the league’s most complete team and if not for the Dragons (who are 7-7-1 against the Giants) might already be running away with the pennant.
The club, though, is going to have to figure out how to manage fatigue over the next couple weeks.
Yomiuri begins this month with 13 games in 13 days. The Kyojin get a day off after that initial blitz before entering a stretch of nine games in nine days.
“I think it’ll be fine if our players fulfill their roles,” manager Tatsunori Hara said Sunday.
Even if they get a few extra breaks due to rain, it’s set up to be a challenging stretch mentally and physically.
“Since we’ve got some really tough games coming up, I want us to work together as a team, take it one game at a time and give everything we have in the game that’s in front of us,” outfielder Yoshihiro Maru said.
Still, the Kyojin have to like the position they’re in right now.
Yomiuri arguably has the league MVP favorite in pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano and another top MVP contender in infielder Kazuma Okamoto.
Sugano seems to have bounced back from a 2019 that seemed pedestrian only because of his own lofty standards. He’s 9-0 with a 1.61 ERA in 10 starts this season.
He’s has thrown at least seven innings — while allowing no more than two runs — in each of his last six starts. The most recent came against the Swallows, who he limited to two runs over seven innings on Aug. 25.
Okamoto, meanwhile, is the CL leader in home (18) runs and RBIs (50) and drove in five runs last week.
Last year’s pennant winners are also out front in the Pa. League, where the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks have a three-game cushion. The Hawks are on a roll, too, having won eight straight.
The key man for the three-time defending Japan Series champions is outfielder Yuki Yanagita, who has the second-highest batting average (.352) and second-most homers (20) in NPB.
Yanagita had two home runs and six RBIs last week as the Hawks swept past the last-place Orix Buffaloes and fourth-place Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
The Chiba Lotte Marines are the second-place team at the moment, three games behind SoftBank. Lotte was 4-2 last week, the lowlight being a 15-0 drubbing by the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles on Thursday.
The highlight was Leonys Martin’s quest to actually hit a ball to the moon.
Martin hit three majestic, tape-measure shots during a weekend series against the Buffaloes at Kyocera Dome. The Cuban slugger leads the club with 17 home runs and has 46 RBIs.
The Eagles, meanwhile, are another 2½ games back in the standings after a 2-4 week. The Fighters, who were also 2-4 last week, are two more games off the pace.
With the standings tighter than in the CL and two playoff spots up for grabs, the PL could be setting up for a pretty exciting second half.
Among other NPB teams, the CL’s second-place outfit, the Yokohama BayStars won four of their six games last week.
Meanwhile, the third-place Hanshin Tigers were 5-1; the Dragons won just once; the Hiroshima Carp were 2-4 and the Swallows finished 1-5.
As for the other two PL teams, the fifth-place Seibu Lions were 3-3 and the Buffaloes won once.
Close but no cigar: The Hiroshima Carp.
The Carp have had their fair share of close calls this year, and not many have gone their way.
After a 6-5 loss to the Tigers on Saturday, the Carp fell to an agonizing 3-10 in one-run games this season. Hiroshima also leads NPB with six ties.
At the other end of the spectrum, the PL’s Marines are 12-6 in games decided by a run.
Stay cool: Spencer Patton.
The BayStars reliever was named one of the heroes of his team’s win over the Carp on Thursday.
Patton, making his first trip to the hero podium this season, also received a refrigerator as a prize. Undoubtedly some fans, and maybe Patton himself found some humor in the situation.
It was August of last year when a frustrated Patton returned to the bench in Yokohama and attacked the dugout fridge with a combination that would’ve made Floyd Mayweather Jr. proud.
Who loves Rakuten more than: Ernesto Mejia.
The Seibu slugger pushed his team past Rakuten with a three-run homer in the ninth inning of a game the Lions won 3-2.
Mejia has only seen limited action in 2020, but it hasn’t been limited enough for Rakuten.
Mejia is hitting .367 in eight games against the Eagles, with six of his seven homers coming against them.
It was a good week for: Yuki Kuniyoshi.
The BayStar reliever got the job done on the mound with 4⅓ scoreless innings and nine strikeouts in four appearances.
He also helped at the plate, hitting a single and scoring a run against the Swallows on Saturday.
It was a bad week for: Satoshi Nakajima.
The new Orix manager got off to a dream start with three wins after taking over for the departed Norifumi Nishimura on Aug. 21.
The nightmare set in during his first full week in charge, with Orix going just 1-5 against the Hawks and Marines.