If Pacific League fans and teams look happier and more upbeat than usual, it’s probably because it’s that time of year again.
Tuesday marks the start of interleague season, a period PL teams probably anticipate as much many in Japan look forward to Golden Week. Central League teams, meanwhile, would probably rather just keep playing each other.
There was no interleague during the shortened 2020 season, as that part of the schedule was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s back this year and scheduled to run from Tuesday to June 13.
If history is a guide, the Pa. League clubs will enjoy it more than their CL counterparts. The PL is 1,098-966-60 against the CL since interleague play began in 2005.
There are various theories as to the PL’s dominance.
Some attribute it to the greater number of PL pitchers with good velocity. That gives them an edge against CL batters and means there won’t be anything on the CL side PL batters haven’t dealt with before. Some would say PL pitching is also just better. Others have attributed it to the advantage the PL has as a league with a designated hitter system — the Yomiuri Giants may be in this camp given their recent campaigns to bring it to the CL.
Perhaps the reason is more intangible. Pa League teams may simply play with more confidence and go into interleague play expecting to win, whereas CL teams are just trying to survive.
Whatever the reason, the PL is clearly the dominant force. The league has finished with the most wins in every interleague season except 2009 and a PL team has won all but three interleague titles. It’s not just in the summer, either. PL teams have also won the last eight Japan Series crowns.
Among the teams themselves, the PL’s Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks are head and shoulders above everyone. The club has won the interleague crown eight times, while the Giants and Chiba Lotte Marines are the only other teams to have won twice.
This year’s interleague season should be especially interesting given how close the PL standings are currently. The first-place Hawks and fourth-place Seibu Lions are separated by just four games going into interleague play. The CL is more spread out, with the Hanshin Tigers six games ahead of the third-place Tokyo Yakult Swallows and the fourth-place Hiroshima Carp another four games back.
An especially good or bad run by any team could play a major role in shaping the pennant races in both leagues.
Exactly what kind of shape the Carp will be in at the start of the interleague campaign remains to be seen.
The CL club was forced to call off its series against the Tigers this weekend because of an outbreak of COVID-19. Three players, including All-Star second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi, tested positive for the virus on May 17.
There were five more positive tests — not limited to players — revealed on Thursday, with this round including All-Star outfielder Seiya Suzuki. Pitcher Aren Kuri joined the list of positives on Sunday.
Overall, 12 members of the organization have tested positive, meaning even if Hiroshima gets back on the field right away, it will have to overcome some big losses.
The Carp are the third NPB club to experience an outbreak after the Yomiuri Giants, who didn’t miss any games, and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, who had four games postponed.
Hiroshima only took the field twice last week, splitting a pair of games against the Giants.
The Tigers also played two games and earned a split against the Swallows. Hanshin is still in first place, 4½ games ahead of the Giants.
The Swallows led the CL with three wins last week, flexing their muscles at the plate with 14 runs against the Tigers on May 18 and scoring 10 in a win over the DeNA BayStars on Sunday. The Swallows lost their other two games.
Yakult beat the BayStars 1-0 on Saturday, with starter Yasuhiro Ogawa following up last week’s shutout with eight scoreless innings.
Elsewhere around the league, the Giants were 2-2-1, the Chunichi Dragons finished 2-1-1 and the BayStars were 1-3.
The Hawks moved back into first place in the PL, going 4-1 last week to take a half-game lead on the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, who were 4-2.
Among the other teams, the Chiba Lotte Marines won two and lost three last week, the Seibu Lions split their six games, the Orix Buffaloes were 1-3 and the last-place Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters were 2-4.
Missing in action
Hawks pitcher Livan Moinelo and slugger Alfredo Despaigne are leaving the team to try and help their country reach the Tokyo Olympics.
The pair, and also developmental squad pitcher Andy Rodriguez, have been called up to the Cuban national team for the Americas baseball qualifier, scheduled to run from May 31 to June 5 in Florida.
Losing Moinelo for an extended stretch is painful, as the right-hander is a key part of the SoftBank bullpen. Moinelo has made 20 appearances this season with five saves, six holds and a 0.45 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 20 innings.
The wheels came off
The Giants’ Zelous Wheeler learned all good things must end on Wednesday, when he finished without a hit for the first time in 22 games. Wheeler’s run ended with a popup and three straight groundouts against the Carp at Tokyo Dome.
Wheeler’s 22-game hit streak — which began March 30 and was put on the back burner when he missed time with the coronavirus — was the longest by a Yomiuri player since Shinnosuke Abe hit safely in 23 straight games in 2016.
Another streak ends
Tigers outfielder Mel Rojas Jr. also saw a streak end last week, though he was a lot happier about it.
Rojas, who signed with the Tigers after four strong years in the Korean Baseball Organization — he was the KBO MVP in 2020 — began his NPB career by going hitless in his first 20 at-bats.
Rojas’ first hit, and also his first home run, finally came in his second at-bat against the Swallows on May 18. He singled his next time up.
It’s been a rough start for the American, who is batting just .074 this year.
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