Friday, September 29, 2006

Japanese Baseball - Pacific League Playoff Preview Part II: Seibu Lions vs. Softbank Hawks

#2 seed) Seibu Lions (80-54-2)
645 RS, 556 RA (.574 pyth %)
Team Avg: .275/.342/.421
Team ERA: 3.64

#3 seed) Nippon Ham Fighters (75-55-5) (1 game left to play)
553 RS, 468 RA (.582 pyth %)
Team Avg: .260/.325/.374
Team ERA: 3.12

Season Series: 10-9-1 Seibu

This will be a classic three game set held in the Seibu Invoice Dome (the Invoice Dome? I thought Enron Field was bad.), a struggle between heavy hitting and great starting pitching that involves the two best pitchers in the Pacific League and arguably the two best in all of Nippon baseball. Both teams come in on kind of a down note, as Seibu choked away a two game lead for the top seed with 3 games to play and Softbank rolled over for Nippon Ham to allow them the top seed. This is the third straight year that 2004 Japan Series winners Seibu have made the PL playoffs.

Any discussion of Seibu begins with Daisuke Matsuzaka. The soon-to-be Mariner/Yankee/Met starter has been overshadowed a bit this year by Softbank ace Kazumi Saito, but still finished 17-5 with a 2.13 ERA and 200 strikeouts in 186 1/3rd innings (all of these are good for second place in the PL behind Saito). However, an ill omen for the Lions came when Matsuzaka was bombed in his last start by Bobby Valentine's Marines, giving up a season high five earned runs on seven hits, two walks, and two hit batsmen. Matsuzaka took a line drive off of his pitching arm in the start before that, and while he wouldn't use that as an excuse, it's clear that something may indeed be off about him.

If Matsuzaka is still hurting, this will be a tough series for the Lions to win, and the key for them will once again be the offense. They led the PL in runs, almost 100 runs greater than second place Nippon Ham. The key to the Seibu attack is former MLB 1B Alex Cabrera, who has put up another stellar year, hitting .315/.404/.564 with 31 homers, good for second in the league behind Michihiro Ogasawara. Beyond Cabrera, there is the declining left fielder Kazuhiro Wada, who put up 19 homers and hit .298/.392/.493, and one of the rising stars of Japanese Baseball, 23 year old shortstop Hiroyumi Nakajima (.306/.368/.481, 19 homers). The rest of the lineup doesn't have much power, the Lions get most of their offense via a very high team OBP (.342, the second place team, Nippon, finished at .325); there isn't a player who had more than 125 at-bats with an OBP under .327. Former MLB'er Jeff Liefer may play a role in this series as well, as he provided yet another power hitter down the stretch, socking 13 homers in just 143 AB's.

Beyond Matsuzaka, the Seibu staff is pretty ordinary. Their second best starter, Hideaki Wakui, put up a 12-8 3.24 line. The bullpen, led by young closer Chikara Onodera (7-3, 2.82, 29 saves), is pretty non-descript compared to the Nippon Ham 1-2-3. Those two are the only pitchers on the staff with an ERA under 3.49 besides Matsuzaka, which led to their uninspiring middle of the table performance in runs allowed (556 is good for third, but they are only 14 ahead of the fifth place Orix Buffaloes, as compared to 88 behind the second place Fighters). Tsutomo Ito will have to hope that Matsuzaka can give him a quality start, or the Seibu team may be in trouble.

Softbank comes into the first stage of the playoffs with an injured starter as well, as third starter Nagisa Arakaki (13-5, 3.01) was hospitalized with an accute infection of the intestine. The good news for Softbank manager Sadaharu Oh is that he may not need a third starter with obvious Sawamura Award candidate Saito (18-5, 1.75, 205 K's in 201 IP) and Softbank's own Wada, left-hander Tsuyoshi (14-6, 2.98, 136 K's in 163 IP). It doesn't get any easier in the bullpen, where Oh can hand the game over to twenty-three year old Takahiro Mahara (0-4, 1.66, 29 saves of his own) and bridge the gap with the Okas: Fujioka (2.34, 26 holds) and Takeoka (1.88).

The Hawks also have the fortune of owning LF Nobuhiko Matsunaka, who led the league in OPS by hitting .327/.454/.532, and 1B Julio Zuleta, who smacked 29 homers with a 879 OPS. Unfortunately, the Hawks have very little else in their lineup. CF Nayoki Omura and SS Muneori Kawasaki both are solid table-setters, but then it starts to get sketchy. The regular fifth hitter is ex-Indian and Dodger Jolbert Cabrera, who only managed a .263/.317/.401 line, and from there it gets uglier.

That said, I'd be shocked if the Hawks didn't find a way to win this series. They do have the best pitcher and the best hitter, it's only three games, and the best starters often seem to punish the strike zone enough to take away the huge OBP advantage that Seibu enjoys. I'll say the Hawks sweep 2-0 and move on to take on the Fighters.

Once we get to the Nippon Series, I will run a preview of the CL winner juxtaposed with the winner of the PL. Until then, look for periodic updates as they come in.

1 comment:

Medicine said...

I'll say the Hawks sweep 2-0 and move on to take on the Fighters.