Osaka – Kyocera Dome is a strange building to look upon.
It stands out against its otherwise normal surroundings and its circular shape and silver color give it a definite sci-fi vibe. The curve of the roof rises up from the middle of a wavy tube that snakes around the dome’s circumference. It so resembles a spaceship few would be surprised if one day it just suddenly blasted off back to where it came from.
A suitably weird setting to kick off the Japan Series in this undeniably weird season.
A 2020 campaign spent adjusting to the new normal brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has reached its conclusion with only the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and Yomiuri Giants still standing. They’ll meet in Game 1 of the Japan Series at Osaka’s UFO-like dome on Saturday night.
“This is a really amazing stadium,” Yomiuri Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said after his team’s practice on Friday.
It’s a good thing he feels that way, since the Giants will be playing their home games there. Tokyo Dome, Yomiuri’s home park, is unavailable for the Japan Series due to scheduling conflicts caused by the coronavirus-related delay in starting the season.
The Hawks will host their games at PayPay Dome in Fukuoka as usual.
This year’s Japan Series will start with a blockbuster pitching matchup between Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano and Hawks right-hander Kodai Senga.
Sugano, a two-time Sawamura Award winner, was 14-2 with a 1.97 ERA during the regular season. Senga won the pitching Triple Crown in the Pacific League, going 11-6 with a 2.16 ERA and 149 strikeouts.
Japanese baseball is nearly at the finish line after a season that started late and was cut to 120 games, from 143, due to the pandemic. While there were positive tests during the season, the league arrives at its finale having had no major scheduling disruptions once the games actually started.
“We were able to get to the Japan Series with two amazing teams,” NPB Commissioner Atsushi Saito said.
With interleague schedule scrapped as a result of COVID-19, the Giants and Hawks will be meeting for the first time this year.
“I think they’ve put together an amazing team,” Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo said of the Giants.
Both clubs practiced Friday, with a few Giants pitchers getting in some extra time on the mound.
In addition to change in locale, the Series will also have a special rule change, with NPB announcing on Thursday that the designated hitter rule will be in effect for every game.
The league said the rule is special for this year and intended to protect the health of the players, especially as pitchers in the PL didn’t bat at all this year.
The last time the DH was used in every game in a Japan Series was in 1985.
“We’ll just play under the rules we have, that’s it,” Hara said when asked about the change.
The Series is a clash of two successful, big-spending teams opposing fans love to hate. It’s also a rematch of 2019, which ended in a SoftBank sweep.
Losing to the Hawks in the Japan Series has become a rite of fall for Central League teams. SoftBank has a Japan Series victory against each of the six CL clubs since 2011 and has won the past three titles. Beating the Giants again would make the club the first four-peat champion since Yomiuri’s run of nine straight from 1965-73.
“We’re going to do everything we can to become No. 1 in Japan for a fourth straight year,” Kudo said.
The Hawks look as strong as ever, too.
SoftBank was an NPB-best 73-42-5 and won the Pacific League by 14 games. They punched their ticket to the Japan Series with a two-game sweep of the Chiba Lotte Marines in the PL Climax Series.
The Hawks may have NPB’s best player in outfielder Yuki Yanagita. He batted .342 this year and finished with a 1.071 OPS and had more than a few homers that had to be seen to be believed among the 29 he hit.
SoftBank has an embarrassment of riches beyond Yanagita including Senga, infielder Ukyo Shuto, who ruled the basepaths with 50 stolen bases, and Livan Moinelo, among the game’s top set-up men.
Then there is Akira Nakamura and Cuban sluggers Alfredo Despaigne and Yurisbel Gracial, last season’s Japan Series MVP.
SoftBank, which scored 531 runs this year, won’t have to deviate from its normal offensive pattern with the DH in effect.
“We use the DH during the Pacific League games, so we’ll play as normal,” Kudo said.
The Giants have had revenge on their minds since the Hawks put the finishing touches on last season’s title at Tokyo Dome.
They were motivated by that loss during spring camp and overpowered the other five CL clubs during the regular season. Yomiuri finished the year 67-45-8 to earn another shot at the the CL’s first Japan Series title since 2012, when Yomiuri beat Hokkaido Nippon Ham.
“I think we’re more prepared now than we were in 2019,” Hara said.
One big difference from 2019 is a healthy Sugano.
Yomiuri will also be hoping for a better series out of star shortstop Hayato Sakamoto this time around. Sakamoto was last year’s CL MVP, but hit just .077 in the Japan Series.
He batted .289 with 19 home runs in 2020 and could be part of a Yomiuri turnaround in this year. The Kyojin also come bearing CL home run champion Kazuma Okamoto and also outfielder Yoshihiro Maru.
Whether or not winning the CL has prepared them for SoftBank, however, is another story.
“We want to fight as one team,” Hara said. “We’ll play the same style as we did during the season, which led us to the Central League pennant.”
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