Osaka – There was only one team in NPB with a worse record over the past two seasons combined than the Orix Buffaloes, who were 106-143-14.
That would be the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, who were 100-151-12.
Forget the Japan Series, let's just call this the Bounceback Series.
The eyes of the Japanese baseball world will descend upon Osaka on Saturday night, when NPB’s two worst-to-first stories collide as the Buffaloes and Swallows meet in Game 1 of the Japan Series at Kyocera Dome Osaka.
"I really feel like it's starting," Buffaloes manager Satoshi Nakajima said Friday. "I hope we can play the way we usually do, we're not going to change or do anything special."
The Buffaloes finished last in the Pacific League in 2020, while the Swallows brought up the rear in the Central League. Both teams bounced back to claim their respective league titles this year and advanced through the postseason to set up the first Japan Series featuring two pennant winners who finished in last place the previous year.
Both clubs put in their final preparations on Friday afternoon during practices at the Buffaloes' home park.
This may be a matchup few, if any, predicted before the season, but it still has all the makings of a compelling series and will pit a solid Orix pitching staff against a Yakult lineup that may be the most explosive in NPB.
"I think they're a really good team," Nakajima said. "They have a strong lineup, they can run and they have good pitching in the middle and at the end of games."
One of the early things to watch will be the matchup between Buffaloes ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto and a Swallows lineup that was the only one in Japan to score 600 runs in the regular season.
Yamamoto is the best pitcher in the game and is 19-5 with a 1.33 ERA and 216 strikeouts in 202⅔ innings, including the 10-strikeout shutout he threw in the final stage of the Pacific League Climax Series. Yamamoto has thrown shutouts in his last two starts.
The Swallows, however, have a premier cleanup hitter in Munetaka Murakami, who was tied for the NPB lead with 39 home runs and was second with 112 RBIs. Tetsuto Yamada spent the season batting in front of Murakami and finished fourth in home runs (34) and third in RBIs (101).
Yakult's big turnaround, however, was keyed by pitching and the veteran leadership of catcher Yuhei Nakamura behind the plate.
After finishing seven of the past eight seasons with a team ERA above 4.10 — last year's was 4.61 — the Yakult pitching staff posted a 3.48 ERA this season. The last time the club had a sub-4.00 ERA was in 2015 — when it reached the Japan Series.
Second-year right-hander Yasunobu Okugawa turned in a good sophomore season, going 9-4 with a 3.26 ERA in 18 appearances. He made an electrifying playoff debut in the Climax Series with a 98-pitch shutout against the Yomiuri Giants.
Closer Scott McGough had a big year out of the bullpen for the Swallows, leading the team with 31 saves.
The Swallows pitchers will need to be wary of Orix slugger Yutaro Sugimoto, who led the PL with 32 home runs this season.
The Buffaloes will be hoping the period between the Climax Series and Game 1 has helped batting champion Masataka Yoshida deal with an injured wrist that caused him to miss the final few weeks of the regular season. Yoshida broke his wrist after being hit by a pitch on Oct. 2.
Orix could also get Taisuke Yamamoka, the club's top pitcher before Yamamoto's breakout, back for the Japan Series. Yamamoka, who had surgery on his right elbow in September, could give Orix a boost on the mound alongside Yamamoto, 13-game winner Hiroya Miyagi and Daiki Tajima.
While Yamamoto will take the ball in Game 1, fans will be kept guessing about the pitching matchups during the series. The next day’s starters are announced during the regular season and in the Climax Series, but the participating managers need to agree to do so for the Japan Series, and they did not this year. This will be the first Japan Series since 2017 where starters are not announced. That didn't stop Nakajima from telling the world his ace would be on the mound.
This could also turn out to be a unique series in that it has a chance to play out across three different stadiums. The first two games are at Orix's home park and Games 3, 4, and 5 (if necessary) will take place at Tokyo Dome due to a scheduling conflict with Jingu Stadium, the Swallows' home venue.
Another scheduling conflict, this time in Osaka, means the scene will shift to Hotto Motto Field in Kobe if the series goes beyond five games.
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