Professional baseball is in the throes of the postseason, here and in Japan. As I write this, the Phillies pounded the Dodgers in the deciding game of the NLCS, ruining my prediction of a Dodgers/Yankees World Series. On the other side of the world, it's already tomorrow afternoon, and Nippon Professional Baseball teams are also in playoff mode. It's now the second stage of the Climax Series.
Climax Series? Huh?
Yeah, that's what Japanese baseball calls their version of the playoffs. Apparently, it's a marketing ploy. Nothing says "Pay attention to me!" like a catchy title.
Japan has two leagues, the Central and Pacific, with the top three finishers in each league advancing to the Climax Series. This season the Yomiuri Giants ran away with the regular season Central title, followed by the Chunichi Dragons and the Yakult Swallows. The Dragons and Swallows met in Stage 1 of the Climax Series, with Chunichi prevailing 2 games to 1. (Stage 1 is a best-of-three series.) They are currently playing the Giants in Stage 2 of the Climax Series. The winner of that stage goes on to Japan Series.
In the Pacific, the Nippon Ham Fighters, Rakuten Golden Eagles, and Softbank Hawks finished 1-2-3. Rakuten dispatched the Hawks and are facing the Yu Darvish-less Fighters.
Best-of-Six Series? Huh?
Another facet of Japanese baseball that may seem a bit odd – because it is – is the fact that the Dragons and Giants are tied 1-1 but have played only one game. Hmmm. That's because the league champions – the Giants and the Fighters – are given 1-game leads before Stage 2 begins as well as home field advantage for the entire series. That means Stage 2 of the Central League will be played entirely at Tokyo Dome, home of the Giants, and Stage 2 of the Pacific will be in Sapporo Dome, Nippon Ham's home park.
Wayne Graczyk, Yomiuri Giants broadcaster, Japan Times columnist, Japan Pro Baseball Fan Handbook and Media Guide publisher, and JapanBall friend, took the time to explain this curiosity to me. "The first place team gets a one-game advantage and all home games to give it every edge in case, as happened this year in the Central League, the first place team wins by a wide margin (more than ten games) during the regular season," Wayne said via e-mail.
I think the NPB, based on Wayne's explanation, does its best to ensure the regular season champions eventually compete in the Japan Series, especially if those teams dominated the season, as Yomiuri did this year. However, the Giants could miss out on the Japan Series if they lose to the Dragons, who routed them last night by a score of 7-2 and tied the series at 1-1. According to Wayne, "it will be especially embarrassing [for the Giants] to lose after winning the pennant by twelve games and with the one-game and home field advantages." Nippon Ham, who won the Pacific by a mere five-and-a-half games, is doing its part to advance to the Japan Series. The Fighters defeated Rakuten last night, thanks in part to a walkoff grand slam off the bat of former MLB player Terrmel Sledge, who, coincidentally, was born in my hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina. But I digress . . .
Many in Japan believe that Nippon Ham will have a tough time winning the Climax Series because they are without the services of their ace – and quite possibly the best pitcher in the world – Yu Darvish. The young star won fifteen games this season, but he is out with lower back pain and right shoulder fatigue. That's a shame because he is dominant in playoff situations: 5-0, 0.84 ERA in five postseason starts. And he's only 23 years old. As Fighters manager Masataka Nashida put it, "The starters and relievers are going to have to pull it together."
It's interesting how baseball talk is similar this time of year, no matter what country.
Thanks to Wayne for the info, and good luck to the Giants in the Climax Series!