There is only one race of real consequence remaining in this NPB season and it’s still too close to call.
With the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks winning the Pacific League pennant on Tuesday and the Yomiuri Giants following suit in the CL on Friday, the only thing left up for grabs is second place in the PL — and the Climax Series berth that comes with it.
That race is going down to the wire with the Chiba Lotte Marines, Seibu Lions and Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles all within 2½ games of each other.
The second-place Marines are currently in the prized position but their grip is slipping. Lotte has run into a rough patch at the end of the year that has seen the club deal with injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak.
The team lost its first four games last week before a win and a tie against the Eagles on Saturday and Sunday. The club began the week with a 1½-game lead over the Lions.
The Marines are without their top power hitter, Leonys Martin, who suffered an ankle injury against the Lions on Oct. 21 and isn’t ready to return just yet. Martin leads the team with 25 home runs. Seiya Inoue is next with 14, meaning Martin’s loss is being felt in a lineup that needs offense.
While the Marines are trending downward, the Lions have been on the prowl and are in position to pounce. Seibu was 3-3 last week, winning a series against the Eagles to start the week before dropping two of three against the Hawks.
Like the Marines, the Lions are without their top power threat, with Hotaka Yamakawa taken off the roster Saturday with an ankle injury.
The two-time reigning home run champion (though he will not extend his reign to three years) won’t be back in the regular season, and his postseason — if Seibu makes it — could also be in doubt. Unlike the Marines, the Lions still have threats at the plate, but will also need to find ways to prevent runs.
The Eagles had been holding on to third place for several weeks before being caught and passed by the Lions.
Rakuten faced both Seibu and Lotte last week, going 2-3-1. The Eagles led the Marines most of the way on Sunday, before giving up the lead in the seventh on the way to their seventh tie of the season.
Rakuten will be looking for Hideaki Wakui, its top pitcher this year, to bounce back after tough outings in his last two starts.
Now each team will brace for the final push.
The Marines have six games left and will get all of them at home. After hosting the Hawks in what might be an early make-or-break series, Lotte closes with the last-place Buffaloes, the Lions and the fifth-place Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
Seibu faces the toughest road to end the season.
The Lions face the Fighters in a three-game home series to start this week. Then the team hits the road for two games against the Eagles, one versus the Marines and finishes the season on Nov. 10 against the Hawks.
Rakuten, meanwhile, faces the Buffaloes in three games and ends with two against the Lions.
The “reward” for the team that comes out on top is a date with the Hawks — who are looking as strong as ever, and were 5-1 last week — in the Climax Series.
At the bottom of the Pa League, the Fighters and Buffaloes spent last week facing each other, at Kyocera Dome and then in Sapporo, with Nippon Ham taking five of the six games.
In the CL, the Giants were 2-3-1, but have the pennant to help soothe any pain that losing week may have caused. The Kyojin’s next meaningful game will be when they host Game 1 of the Japan Series on Nov. 21 at Kyocera Dome.
Yomiuri has seven regular-season games left, with shortstop Hayato Sakamoto four hits away from joining the 2,000-hit club and Tomoyuki Sugano possibly getting a chance to bolster his case for the Sawamura Award.
In the race for second place, which comes with only pride as a reward in the CL, the Hanshin Tigers have a 1½-game advantage over the Chunichi Dragons after a 4-1-1 week that began with a sweep of Chunichi. The Dragons, who had been riding a wave of momentum, stumbled through a 0-6 week.
The Yokohama BayStars and departing manager Alex Ramirez are still in the mix, a half-game behind Chunichi. Yokohama swept the Giants to delay Yomiuri’s pennant celebrations early last week and was 1-1-1 against Hanshin.
In fifth place, the Hiroshima Carp were 5-1. On Sunday, Masato Morishita threw eight shutout innings against the Dragons to give himself a chance to win the league’s ERA title as a rookie. Morishita is currently second with a 1.907 ERA, trailing only Chunichi ace Yudai Ono, who has a 1.905.
In last place, the Swallows finished the week 0-4-2.
What a month for: The Hawks
It was all treats and no tricks for SoftBank in October. The newly crowned PL champions caught fire last month, rolling to a 22-4-1 record that set a new NPB mark for the most wins in a single month.
Make room for another title: Yoshihiro Maru
The Giants clinching the CL title means Maru, who played for the Carp before joining Yomiuri last season, has been part of the last five CL champions — from 2016 to 2018 with Hiroshima and the last two with the Giants.
He hasn’t just been along for the ride, either. Maru has been named to the CL Best Nine team every year since 2016, and was the league MVP in 2017 and 2018. He’s batting .284 with 27 home runs this season.
Take what you want: Ukyo Shuto
The Hawks’ base-stealing machine set a new NPB record on Oct. 29 by recording a stolen base for the 12th consecutive game, breaking the mark set by Yutaka Fukumoto in 1974. He extended the streak to 13 the next day, surpassing the MLB record, which is held by Bert Campaneris, who had his streak in 1969. Shuto didn’t get a stolen base in his next game, ending the streak.
It was a good week for: The Hawks and the Giants
Winning a championship will do that.
It was a bad week for: Shogo Nakamura
With the Marines in a tight battle for a playoff spot, Nakamura was 4-for-22 with 10 strikeouts, though he had two RBIs, last week.
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