Thursday, October 22, 2009

How Will They Win Without Yu?


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.

Playoff Structure
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!

5 comments:

Daniel said...

I've been paying special attention to the Climax Series (and Japanese baseball in general) and I think that Nippon-Ham is going to have a tough time against the Eagles starting pitching, but may still win if the Eagles offense starts slowing down.

Iwakumi and Tanaka are a duo to be reckoned with on the mound, especially without Darvish to oppose them, but who knows what effect the crushing walk-off loss will have on Rakuten. One thing's for sure, the Eagles have a weak bullpen and they'd better hope their starters go deep or they're going to keep seeing Nippon-Ham catch up late in the game.

I'm not sure if the Dragons will have enough power to take down the Giants, but I sure hope they do.

This year's world series is going to be super exciting. Both the Phillies and the Yankees have such strong, threatening lineups, so these games are sure to go down to the wire. The one big downside I'm seeing for another National League victory is Philadelphia's poor hitting against lefties. New York is stacked with left-handed pitching. It's going to be an exciting series, even though I have to root for the :shudder: Phillies this year.

I feel dirty just saying that...

shrinecastle said...

Dan,

Your Eagles are now in a 3-0 hole. Ace Hisashi Iwakuma gave up only three runs, but that was enough for Nippon Ham to win 3-1. The Giants won as well. I think I'm rooting for the Giants simply because Wayne works on their television broadcasts. By that token, I'm a big fan of Marty Kuenhert in the Eagles front office, and Kleenex Stadium is a great ballpark.

I've read that Darvish is nursing his back and shoulder and is out for the Climax Series, but I haven't found any articles that give any indication there's a chance he'll pitch in the Japan Series if the Fighters advance. Have you seen anything?

As for the North American Series – I meant, World Series . . .
We'll find out tonight (maybe) if the Yankees will be the Phillies' opponent. I expect lots of homers in that one. It's hard for me to root for either team, though. I guess I should pull for the Yankees since I actually work on their games for the YES Network. I don't even want to think about the Phillies winning consecutive World Series. Cringing here . . .

Daniel said...

I hadn't seen the Eagles score yet, but that's a real shame. Looks like it's on Tanaka's shoulders to start getting this series in a more manageable state. The whole one game back thing is a real huge impediment to winning, isn't it? I guess it's fair, since that team topped the league, but it seems almost like too great an advantage. Then again, I don't have any better suggestions...

What I've seen on the internet claims that Darvish is having a real rough time with his injuries and the prognosis isn't good for the postseason. The Fighters have gone on the record as saying that if he's feeling even a little off, they're not going to let him pitch in the Nippon Series because he's too valuable to the franchise.

You're right that the Yankees have yet to clinch, but, the way they've been playing, it's kind of a foregone conclusion. Both Yankee Stadium and Citizens Bank Park are hitter friendly ballparks, so I expect to see plenty of long balls too. I can't wait for that series to start, it's way too far away the way that baseball is scheduling its postseason nowadays

Daniel said...

Japanese managers, owners, and players are so different from their US counterparts. Granted, the Eagles aren't hiring him again for next year, but their manager, Katsuya Nomura gave this little inspirational speech after the game:

"We couldn't do the little things. The little differences between us and the Fighters came out. I think it's hopeless now. To lose a game like we did last night, there's really no way we can win."

It seems a little unnecessarily pessimistic.

shrinecastle said...

Ha, yeah, that speech makes me want to go out there and give it my all for Nomura! From what I've read, he's quite the curmudgeon. I know he's upset about being "expired" as Rakuten's owner put it. Har. I suppose that's put him in an even more grumbly mood.