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For nearly a decade, it seems Central League teams have simply fought among themselves to see who would lose to the Pacific League representative in the Japan Series.

No team from the league has won the title since the Yomiuri Giants in 2012, but like Sisyphus and his boulder, they keep at it in hopes of getting over the hump.

The Giants have been the “winners” the past two seasons and anyone wanting a shot at the PL this fall will have to go through the Kyojin to earn it.

The following is the first of a two-part NPB preview beginning with the 2021 Central League.

In order of predicted finish:

Hanshin Tigers

2020 record: 60-53-7 (2nd)

Let’s just get it out of the way now. Rookie Teruaki Sato had a monster spring at the plate. He hit .302, tied a Japanese baseball record with six home runs and no doubt excited the famously patient and reserved Hanshin fanbase.

Offense has been a problem for Hanshin, and the 22-year-old Sato looks like part of the solution. Of course, hitting in the spring and hitting in the regular season are two different things.

If Sato can bring some of that production into games that count, he’ll force manager Akihiro Yano to find a spot for him in a lineup that already has Yusuke Oyama, who had 28 homers last year, and Jerry Sands, who had 19.

The club will also add Mel Rojas Jr. at some point. Rojas, one of the foreign players stuck outside Japan due to travel restrictions, hit over 40 homers in two of his last three seasons in the Korea Baseball Organization.

Tigers rookie Teruaki Sato turned heads with his performance during the spring. | KYODO
Tigers rookie Teruaki Sato turned heads with his performance during the spring. | KYODO

Pitching should again be a strength with Yuki Nishi (11-5 with a 2.26 ERA) leading the way and Haruto Takahashi — when he’s healthy and available — Koyo Aoyagi and Takumi Akiyama in the mix. Hanshin also signed Chen Wei-yin, bringing him back to the CL after stints in MLB and with the Chiba Lotte Marines.

Then there’s Shintaro Fujinami, an extremely talented pitcher who sometimes has extremely inconsistent command. Fujinami, who will start the opener, had a strong second half in relief last year and returns as a potential game changer.

The Tigers were better in the field in 2020, but improvement on defense will still be a key component to the club’s success.

Yomiuri Giants

2020 record: 67-45-8 (1st)

Yomiuri’s push for a third straight pennant got a big boost when ace Tomoyuki Sugano, who was posted over the offseason, failed to get an MLB offer to his liking.

Sugano, the CL MVP after going 14-2 with a 1.97 ERA, coming back takes the pressure off would-be No. 1 Shosei Togo, a promising young pitcher who posted a 2.76 ERA in 107⅔ innings and will serve at least another year as an understudy.

The club signed free agent Shoichi Ino while Sugano still had one foot out the door and the right-hander will now add depth instead of trying to help fill a hole. The Kyojin also have Angel Sanchez and Nobutaka Imamura in a group of serviceable arms, while rookie Ryuta Heinai, may also see some time on the mound.

Yomiuri could be scary on offense with free agent Takayuki Kajitani joining a core of Hayato Sakamoto, Yoshihiro Maru and Kazuma Okamoto, who combined for 77 of the club’s 135 homers in 2020.

Once the travel restrictions have been overcome, Eric Thames, who hit 40 homers in Korea in 2016 and 72 from 2017 to 2019 for the Milwaukee Brewers, will also be swinging away at Tokyo Dome.

Hiroshima Toyo Carp

2020 record: 52-56-12 (5th)

First and foremost, the Carp have to overhaul a bullpen that brought up the rear with a 4.64 ERA and started more fires than it put out.

It’s a job manager Shinji Sasaoka is going to try to fix via youth movement. Rookie Ryoji Kuribayashi is the likely closer and fourth-year pitcher Makoto Kemuna will join him in the pen. Two more rookies, Daisuke Moriura and Haruki Omichi could also have key roles in relief.

Seiya Suzuki batting .300 and hit 25 home runs for the Carp in 2020. | KYODO
Seiya Suzuki batting .300 and hit 25 home runs for the Carp in 2020. | KYODO

The starting rotation begins with Daichi Osera, the Carp ace who will be looking to bounce back from a down season and September elbow surgery. Masato Morishita was the club’s top pitcher in 2020 — he won the CL Rookie of the Year award for his efforts — and Aren Kuri, who was 8-6 with a 2.96 ERA, is a breakout candidate.

Outfielder Seiya Suzuki is one of the best players in Japan and hit .300 with 25 homers in 2020. The club will also be banking on Ryuhei Matsuyama and Ryoma Nishikawa to produce, Shota Dobayashi to have figured out his game after finally having a big year and for new import Kevin Cron to add another big bat to the lineup.

Chunichi Dragons

2020 record: 60-55-5 (3rd)

A cruel twist of fate saw the Dragons make it back into the top three after eight years only to have the Climax Series canceled because of the coronavirus.

Can they pull off an encore? Sure, the Dragons are clearly a team on the rise, but it’s going to be tough.

The Dragons have plenty of pitching and play good defense. Hitting, though, is a problem. Chunichi got good results in 2020 despite a negative-60 run differential, but it might be best to not tempt fate again.

Dayan Viciedo hit .267 with 17 homers in 2020 and can just keep doing what’s been doing. The only other Dragon to reach double digits in homers, however, was Toshiki Abe, who had 13.

Yohei Oshima is a great hitter and baserunner and Shuhei Takahashi is another good hitter, but someone, be it Abe or Ryosuke Hirata, needs to help Viciedo drive in runs. Mike Gerber, a new foreign signing, is someone the Dragons are hoping can also help in that area.

Pitching will keep Chunichi in the hunt.

Ace Yudai Ono is coming off two very good seasons, including a 2020 that earned him his first Sawamura Award. Yuya Yanagi and Kodai Umetsu are two more quality arms and flamethrower Raidel Martinez is in the bullpen to close things out.

Yokohama DeNA BayStars

2020 record: 56-58-6 (4th)

Former star pitcher Daisuke Miura is in the big chair now and will have his work cut out for him from the start.

He won’t have ace Shota Imanaga, still recovering from having his left shoulder cleaned out in October, to start the season and lost outfielder Takayuki Kajitani and starter Shoichi Ino to the Giants in free agency.

COVID-19 travel restrictions mean his foreign players, including Neftali Soto and Tyler Austin, who combined for 45 homers last year, and reliever Edwin Escobar, will have late starts.

In the meantime, the spotlight will be on captain Keita Sano, who broke out last season, hitting .328 to win the batting title and slugging 20 homers, and Toshiro Miyazaki, who hit .301 with 14 home runs.

With Imanaga on the shelf, lefty Haruhiro Hamaguchi gets the ball on opening day. The pitcher who had the best numbers last year, though, was Shinichi Onuki, who won 10 games and posted a 2.53 ERA in 113⅔ innings. Kentaro Taira is coming off a decent year and will also be in the mix, as could top draft pick Taisei Irie and another young pitcher, Masaya Kyoyama.

Tokyo Yakult Swallows

2020 record: 41-69-10 (6th)

The good news for the Swallows is that both star batter Tetsuto Yamada and top pitcher Yasuhiro Ogawa decided to return after becoming eligible for free agency.

The Birds should be better than they were last year if both bounce back from down years, but would still have a long way to go to contend.

The lineup has an stud in Munetaka Murakami, who finished 2020 with a .307 average, 28 home runs and a 1.012 on-base plus slugging percentage, and a solid veteran in Norichika Aoki. The club also added another veteran player in Seiichi Uchikawa in free agency.

Yakult tried to add some pitching depth to a staff in desperate need of improvement by signing free agent Rick van den Hurk, trading for lefty Kazuto Taguchi and prepping prized second-year righty Yasunobu Okugawa for a spot on the top team.

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