Tag Archives: Japan Series

Postseason split

The Central League is expected to cancel its Climax Series postseason playoffs in order to focus to allow for as many regular-season games, Sankei Sports reported on Saturday. The Pacific League is expected to stick with some kind of playoffs to choose its Japan Series competitor.

While virtually everything is new about the 2020 season because of the coronavirus, for stretches of their history the CL and PL have split on their approach to postseason baseball.

The PL, which has traditionally trailed the CL in attendance, has repeatedly tried playoff systems, a single-season trial in 1952, a 10-year stretch from 1973 to 1982 when the first-half and second-half champions played off, and most recently from 2004 to 2006.

The 1952 model consisted of all seven PL teams playing a 108-game season, and the four best clubs playing 12 more. The 1973-1982 format was filled with problems, primarily one of rainouts. Japan has not managed rainouts well, and first-half games rained out and made out at the end of the season, counted toward the first-half championship, not the second.

Teams that won the first half could go into the Japan Series uncontested by winning the second, but often they just fell flat in the second half.

I wasn’t around for those first two tries, but when the PL tried again in 2004, it was accompanied by a chorus of laughter from the old guard and the CL, ridiculing it for watering down the value of the regular season.

The new CL format would allow the third-place team to reach the Japan Series, prompting one of Japan’s biggest windbags, then Yomiuri Giants owner Tsuneo Watanabe to spout some of the nonsense he was famous for.

“If the Giants win the CL and the PL champion doesn’t have a winning record, we’ll boycott,” he famously said.

Of course, the reason those playoffs only lasted three years was because the CL owners got jealous of the big crowds that second-division PL teams drew in the waning weeks of the season and wanted in. The PL playoffs were replaced by the Climax Series, which was modified so as not to offend CL sensibilities.

So if things go as the Sankei Sports reported, it will be a nice taste of nostalgia, with the CL owners getting once more to spout off about old-school family values or whatever, and very possibly at the end of the season wishing they had kept their damned mouths shut.

Asian baseball on American TV

My late pal Wayne Graczyk used to talk about the time he worked on the U.S. TV feed for the 1994 Japan Series alongside Ken Harrelson and Tom Paciorek when the major leagues were on strike, but otherwise Asian baseball on American TV has been a hit-and-miss affair.

On Thursday, Yonhap News reported that ESPN’s talks with the Korea Baseball Organization to air pro games from South Korea fell through. The report said the U.S. giant wanted the content for free, so that would seem like a non-starter.

South Korea suffered more severe early infections of COVID-19 than the United States. Despite Donald Trump’s boasts to the contrary, South Korea has done a vastly better job of controlling the coronavirus, and KBO is set to open its season, behind closed doors, on May 5.

Japan follows Trump’s lead

While Japan took some steps in February to stem the spread of infection by asking schools to close and event promoters not to attract crowds, the national government echoed Trump’s line that all was under control so that the Tokyo Olympics could go on as scheduled. Indeed, the biggest concern seems to have been suppressing the number of positive test results so as not to make people think Japan had a problem.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who seems to enjoy being in Trump’s orbit and who owes allegiance to the monied right-wing elites who fund his agenda, has said in essence, taking harsh measures to control the coronavirus is against the law and we lawmakers are helpless to change the law.

So it is that while Japan could have been in the same place as South Korea, with solid testing regimes and aggressive measures in place, it chose to test as few people as possible in order to keep published infection totals low. And while baseball might start here in June, it might not.

When it does, it will be very interesting if U.S. networks have any interest in broadcasting Japanese games. The Central League, where all teams hold exclusive broadcasting rights to their home games, is pretty much a no-go, but the Pacific League, whose clubs can market their rights jointly through Pacific League marketing, might have some attractive options available if baseball is being played here but not in the U.S.

Of course, there is always the chance that Japan, like ESPN, will boot its opportunity.

NPB and the fear of failure

In 2007, if I recall correctly, Bobby Valentine tried to introduce NPB to ESPN for the purpose of airing the Japan Series. The Series rights belong to NPB not to the individual clubs, although they have the right to select broadcasters for their home games in the postseason.

At the time, Valentine was the de facto general manager of the Lotte Marines, and team representative Ryuzo Setoyama — until he engineered Valentine’s ouster in a 2009 coup d’etat — sometimes cooperated with the skipper to pursue reforms. Setoyama broached the idea of having NPB sell the Japan Series broadcasting rights to ESPN, but according to Valentine, the other teams vetoed it.

“They said they were afraid that some kind of mistake might happen that would embarrass them,” Valentine told me at the time.

Of course, weird stuff has happened in the Series. Hall of Fame manager Toshiharu Ueda pulled his team off the field in 1978 to protest a home run he thought was foul. In 2004, accident-prone umpire Atsushi Kittaka’s poor execution of an out call at home plate caused Game 1 of the Japan Series to be delayed for 49 minutes.

And since Japanese baseball is about not losing by making mistakes, there may be some here who would consider vetoing a deal that could expose NPB to ridicule a victory.

Japan Series 2019 Game 4

Sweep city

It took 60 years, but the 2019 SoftBank Hawks became the second team in franchise history to beat the Yomiuri Giants in the Japan Series, replicating the 1959 Nankai Hawks’ four-game sweep with a 4-3 win Game 4 win at Tokyo Dome. SoftBank has now won five of the last six Japan Series — a feat last achieved by the Seibu Lions’ run of six series titles in seven seasons from 1986 to 1992

Cuba’s Yurisbel Gracial was named the series MVP after his third home run over four games, a three-run blast, proved to be the big blow of Wednesday’s final game.

Aces present and past

As advertised, Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano started for Yomiuri after the end of his season was marred by lower back pain. Unlike the pitcher who struggled in September, however, Sugano’s location and command were spot-on. With umpire Takanori Yamamoto’s strike zone giving the pitchers a strike zone that would accommodate a motor scooter, Sugano located his fastball just off the plate for one called strike after another.

His 38-year-old opponent, Tsuyoshi Wada, had also struggled with nagging injuries this season and pitched in just a handful of games. Wada, SoftBank’s ace until he joined the Baltimore Orioles as a free agent in 2012, lost some velocity after Tommy John surgery and has become the ultimate locating finesse pitcher. With physical issues in the second half, his location and command suffered, but like Sugano, he was nearly as good as he’s been in years.

Nearly every Giants batter came to the plate with a strike against him, as Wada started most of them with a first-pitch slider for a strike at the lower limit of the zone. Working over left-handed hitters with his slider and fastball, and doing the same to right-handers with the help of his changeup, Wada was really the last pitcher the struggling Giants hitters needed to see.

The Giants needed six hits to avoid breaking the 2005 Hanshin Tigers’ record for fewest hits (22) in a Japan Series, and they managed just one off Wada over five innings.

Gracial goes first

Gracial’s first two series homers, a two-run shot in Game 1 and a solo Game 3 blast, followed on the heels of Giants home runs. But this time he didn’t wait. With the game scoreless through three, Sugano ran into trouble. A lucky bounce turned Kenta Imamiya’s bouncer to third into a leadoff single.

With one out and Imamiya on second after a steal, Sugano’s first-pitch fastball to Alfredo Despaigne was high enough for him to smash into left and bring Gracial up with a chance to do some damage.

Sugano got ahead of the count and tried to lure Gracial farther out of the strike zone, but Gracial fouled off the closer pitches and laid off the others. A 3-2 slider meant for the outside corner got too much of the zone. It had enough movement to just miss the sweet spot, but Gracial got enough of the ball to send it six rows past the center field wall.

Okamoto makes a game of it

Hawks skipper Kimiyasu Kudo pulled Wada after five, and the switch to hard-throwing right-hander Robert Suarez looked like it would be a nasty change for the Giants. But Suarez issued a one-out walk and missed up with a 157-kilometer-per-hour fastball away that Kazuma Okamoto drilled the other way into the stands in right center.

The teams traded runs in the seventh, the Giants giving away one with the help of a pair of errors. Yasuhiro Yamamoto, in at second as a defensive replacement made a wild throw with his first touch, replicating his snake-bit start in Game 2 when his first touch of the game as a defensive replacement in the seventh inning opened the door to a three-run inning.

Charity begins at home plate

With the Giants facing elimination, home plate umpire Yamamoto gave them a little help with a smaller strike zone than the one he’d had for most of the game. It allowed Hayato Sakamoto to avoid ending the game on a called third strike, against closer Yuito Mori. But the Giants captain failed to take advantage, swinging his way out of the at-bat flailing at a pitch well out of the zone.

Series notes

  • The Giants managed 22 hits, tying the Tigers record for fewest hits, although the Tigers batted in just 34 innings in 2005, their 10-1 Game 1 loss being called on account of fog in the bottom of the seventh inning. The Giants’ .176 team batting average is also a record low, while their 35 strikeouts are a record for four games.
  • The series set a four-game attendance record of 163,365. Unlike team attendance records, which some teams greatly inflated prior to 2005, NPB counts Japan Series and All-Star attendance.
  • The Giants became the second team to commit four errors in a four-game series and became the first team to only turn one double play.
  • The Giants extended their team record for years without a Japan Series title to seven.
  • The Hawks became the fourth non-league champion to win the Japan Series, having accomplished the feat the past two seasons. The other two teams were the 2007 Chunichi Dragons and the 2010 Lotte Orions. The Hawks, however, won the regular-season championship in 2004 and 2005 to the eventual series champs, the Seibu Lions and Marines, but from 2004 to 2006, the PL pennant was decided in the playoffs. That changed in 2007, when the CL came on board and insisted the regular-season champion be awarded the league title.

Japan Series 2019 Game 3

There was a little reminiscing at the start of Tuesday’s Game 3, when the Japan Series moved to the home of the Central League champions, with the Yomiuri Giants trailing 2-0. That’s the same deficit they overcame in the 2000 neural surgeon series to beat the Hawks.

Hawks cruise past Giants rookies

Giants rookie Yuki Takahashi lasted 2-2/3 innings, while SoftBank starter Rick van den Hurk was pulled after four frames with both starters giving up two innings. The game was decided in that 1-1/3-inning gap in which another Giants rookie, Shosei Togo, allowed four unearned runs in a third of an inning.

After a Seiichi Uchikawa single and a walk, the fun began with van den Hurk not squaring to bunt on the first pitch. TV cameras showed that this had taken the Giants bench by surprise, and the infielders had to gather at the mound to consider the implications of the Hawks not bunting in an automatic bunt situation.

Van den Hurk got a poor bunt down on the next pitch, Togo pounced and threw a one-hopper that third baseman Kazuma Okamoto could have caught but didn’t to load the bases. A pinch-hit sacrifice fly, an infield single and a walk made it 4-2 and Alfredo Despaigne completed the scoring with a two-run single.

Despaigne, a designated hitter playing left field, had one outfield incident, playing a potential out into a second-inning double for Cuban compatriot Alex Guerrero. But the Hawks’ home run leader drove in three runs with a pair of singles.

The Giants leadoff man, a hard-hitting 37-year-old on-base machine named Yoshiyuki Kamei, homered twice, while Yurisbel Gracial hit his second homer of the series.

The Giants narrative will no doubt switch from 2000 to 1989, when Yomiuri bounced back from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Kintetsu Buffaloes. The Buffaloes operated from 1950 to 2004 and at the time they merged with the Orix BlueWave, were the only existing NPB team without a Japan Series championship.

Some other notes

  • The Giants may have set a Japan Series record by going through four pitchers in the first four innings.
  • van den Hurk retired Giants cleanup hitter Okamoto twice on seven pitches, all curveballs.
  • Hawks rookie Hiroshi Kaino allowed one hit in his four-batter seventh inning, with all three outs recorded on called third strikes.
  • Hawks closer Yuito Mori has pitched and wrapped up all three games but has yet to enter in a save situation.
  • Needing four runs in the ninth, Giants pinch-runner Daiki Masuda tried to go from first and third on a one-out wild pitch and didn’t make it.
  • Game 4 will pit Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano, who has been suffering from lower back issues since September against 38-year-old lefty Tsuyoshi Wada, who was once the Hawks ace and who has been struggling with fitness issues the past few months as well.
  • No team has swept the Japan Series since the Lotte Marines beat the Hanshin Tigers in 2005.
  • The Hawks and Giants are playing each other for a record 11th time, with the Hawks having won just once, 60 years ago, when Nankai Hawks Hall of Famer Tadashi Sugiura won all four games in a 4-0 sweep, starting Games 1, 3 and 4, and finishing the series with back-to-back complete game victories.

Japan Series 2019 Game 2

It took Kan Otake 18 pro seasons to reach the Japan Series and about two minutes for it to go south on him. The veteran right-hander, who joined the Yomiuri Giants as a free agent after the Giants lost the 2013 series in seven games, got his first opportunity on Sunday.

The 36-year-old, who found new life this season in middle relief, entered the seventh inning of a scoreless game in relief of Cristopher Mercedes, only for an error to put the leadoff man on base after slugger Alfredo Despaigne struggled to make contact.

With pinch-runner Ukyo Shuto on first, the SoftBank Hawks pulled off a run and hit on a 2-1 pitch to Yurisbel Gracial that put runners on the corners with no outs.

Otake’s 15th pitch, a 2-0 fastball was up and got a little too much of the plate and way too much of the barrel. Nobuhiro Matsuda launched it out over the imposing distant center field wall to break up the scoreless game.

“That was pretty rare for me to hit one out to center field,” Matsuda said.

The Hawks looked to add on a run in the eighth by having two-time batting champion Seiichi Uchikawa sacrifice for the second straight game, but no more runs would cross until Yuki Yanagita and Shuhei Fukuda went deep in the eighth off a pair of big breaking balls.

“That (home run power) is really our bread and butter,” manager Kimiyasu Kudo said a day after asserting that the Hawks’ strength was their ability to play small ball.

Mercedes and Hawks rookie Rei Takahashi combined to make this the first game in the series’ 70-year history without a base runner through four innings, a stretch Matsuda ended with a two-out fifth-inning single. Mercedes got hitters to chase his slider out of the zone, while Takahashi confounded them with great run on his fastball and some wonderful movement with his screwball.

Hawks spreading the love

The Hawks’ home winning streak extends back to their 2011 championship against the Chunichi Dragons. This is their fifth series since and a victory this time will see them complete a grand slam of sorts by defeating all six Central League teams, having knocked off the Hanshin Tigers in 2014, the Yakult Swallows (2015), the DeNA BayStars (2017) and Hiroshima Carp (2018).

With both pitchers on, the game really turned on the defense, which helped Takahashi get away with a some good swings on his mistakes and kept him in the game as long as he was.

All in all it was a spectacle a great pitchers’ duel, combined with home runs and a late comeback as the Giants scored three runs in the ninth and put the tying run on deck before the game ended.

“Mercedes was really flying tonight,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said. “Nice pitching.”

“Our bullpen gave up hits on miss-located pitches. Next time we’ll have to pitch so we don’t throw them where they’re easy to hit.”

Japan Series 2019 Game 1

The Hawks and Giants kicked off a revival of their formerly long-running rivalry, meeting in the autumn’s season-ending series for the first time in 19 years. So before the game all the focus was on something that had absolutely nothing to do with the proceedings: reminiscing about former Hall of Fame Giants teammates, Sadaharu Oh and Shigeo Nagashima, who managed against each other in 2000.

If they wanted to reminisce about the “ON” series, perhaps they should have mentioned the neural surgeons, which I’ll get to later.

Senga gets the job done

Making his third straight Game 1 start, Kodai Senga allowed a run — on a second-inning homer by future Hall of Famer Shinnosuke Abe — over seven innings. He earned the wins as SoftBank pulled away against the Giants’ bullpen in a 7-2 win.

The Hawks have now won 13 straight Japan Series home games. On Sunday, the Giants will be going for their first series road win since they beat Masahiro Tanaka in Game 6 in 2013, the only loss Tanaka would suffer in that calendar year.

After Abe’s home run, Yurisbel Gracial turned on a high-but-straight fastball from Shun Yamaguchi and lined it into the field seats just inside the permanent wall at Yafuoku Dome, the Home Run Terrace to put SoftBank up by one.

Senga lacked control, but he could get batters out in the strike zone, while Yamaguchi got hitters to chase out of the zone and flail at a superb splitter. When his control sputtered in the sixth, he surrendered another run. The Hawks might have scored more, but Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo was determined to play small ball.

Hard-hitting shortstop Kenta Imamiya sacrificed to give Yamaguchi the only he could manage until Akira Nakamura‘s bases-loaded sacrifice fly made it 3-1, and helped the Hawks strand two.

In the bottom of the seventh, Kudo pulled pinch-hitter Yuya Hasegawa for pinch-hitter Keizo Kawashima to get a platoon advantage when the Giants flipped to a lefty to face Hasegawa. Both of these hitters are terrific, so there’s really nothing to be gained here, but the guys in the broadcasting booth were going nuts about how actively Hawks skipper Kimiyasu Kudo was pushing buttons.

“We have home run power, but we also can execute a small-ball attack,” Kudo said with pride of a team that tied the Giants for the NPB lead in home runs during the regular season with 183.

Being stupid means being serious

Those of you who watch a lot of Japanese ball have probably caught on to this, but managers who let their players play or who try to be efficient with their resources, can be perceived as not trying hard enough to win. Thus, using one’s best hitters to sacrifice against a bunt shift, when a “successful” sacrifice will cost you runs, is perceived as showing fighting spirit.

Thus Kudo bunted with two-time batting champion Seiichi Uchikawa in the eighth inning, and brought in his ace reliever in the ninth with a six-run leave. There was no advantage to either move except to show you mean business.

And then there were the doctors

The 2000 Japan Series was known for something other than just the first postseason meeting between Oh and Nagashima. It was also the first Japan Series where the first three games were played on consecutive days, with the off day to allow for travel from Tokyo to Fukuoka taking place after the teams played Game 3 in Fukuoka.

This proves that not all Japan Series stupidity actually takes place during the series. NPB rules require all teams to secure their home stadium in case they play in the Japan Series, but some unnamed Daiei Hawks executive decided prior to the team’s pennant in 1999 that there was no chance the PL doormats would be in the 2000 series, and rented out Fukuoka Dome one day for a neural surgeon convention — the day when Game 3 was supposed to take place.

NPB games, news of Oct. 13, 2019

The Hawks and Giants will meet in the Japan Series for a record 11th time after they clinched their league’s Climax Series final stages on Sunday with two games to spare. The Japan Series started in 1950 when Japanese pro ball split into two leagues and expanded. The Giants had played nine against the Nankai Hawks, who were sold to the Daiei supermarket chain in 1989. Daiei and Yomiuri played the other one, in 2000.

Hawks 9, Lions 3

At MetLife Dome, Kenta Imamiya had the game of his life, going 5-for-5 with a walk, three home runs and six RBIs as SoftBank won its seventh straight final stage game at Seibu’s stadium.

The Hawks are now into their third straight Japan Series, matching the three straight berths achieved twice by Nankai. The Japan Series starts on Saturday at Yafuoku Dome in Fukuoka.

Game highlights are HERE.

Giants 4, Tigers 1

At Tokyo Dome, Yomiuri’s bullpen inherited a two-on, no-out situation in the sixth inning and retired 12 straight batters to end Hanshin’s season after the Giants scored the go-ahead run on a two-out bunt single.

With Yasuhiro Yamamoto on third with a double and a sacrifice, No. 3 hitter Yoshihiro Maru, the Central League’s MVP the last two seasons, dropped a bunt down the third base line. Starting pitcher Yuki Nishi was all over it, but threw wide to first on what would have been a close play. Maru was credited with an RBI infield single.

“I saw (third baseman Yusuke) Oyama playing back a bit, so I thought I could beat it out,” Maru said, although no one accounted for the great jump Yamamoto had down the line.

Giants starter Yuki Takahashi allowed a run on two hits but walked four batters. The Giants tied it 1-1 when Kazuma Okamoto, the CS MVP, hit his third homer of the stage. Alex Guerrero hit his second of the stage, a two-run shot in the seventh to put the game out of reach.

Game highlights are HERE.

NPB games, news of Oct. 11, 2019

“Our backs were to the wall tonight, but … that is where the Hanshin Tigers thrive.

–Hanshin Tigers third baseman Yusuke Oyama after his ninth-inning home run broke a 6-6 tie and allowed the Tigers to wintheir seventh elimination game in the past month.

Tigers 7, Giants 6

At Tokyo Dome, 39-year-old closer Kyuji Fujikawa worked two scoreless innings to collect the win as Hanshin won a see-saw Game 3 in the Central League Climax Series final stage on Friday to keep their season alive. League champ Yomiuri needs only a tie over the final three games to advance to the Japan Series for the first time in six years.

Giants cleanup hitter Kazuma Okamoto just missed a third-inning grand slam, with a double off the top of the center field wall in Yomiuri’s three-run third. That gave the hosts a 3-1 lead. Hanshin, which had never led in the series until Ryutaro Umeno homered to open the scoring in the third, retook the lead in a five-run fifth.

The Giants faced bases-loaded situations in the third, fourth and fifth — when rookie Koji Chikamoto capped the inning with a three-run triple. The 23-year-old Okamoto tied it 6-6, however, in the bottom of the inning with a two-run homer, his second of the series.

Each team wasted a good late-inning scoring opportunity before Oyama put an easy swing on a back-foot slider from lefty Kota Nakagawa and lofted it over Tokyo Dome’s shallow wall in straight-away right.

Asked about what it felt like to go into an elimination game, Oyama said, it was nothing new for the Tigers.

“We only got here after facing a bunch of these ‘must-win games’ at the end of the regular season, but that is where the Hanshin Tigers thrive,” he said.

Game highlights are HERE.

Hawks 7, Lions 5

At MetLife Dome, Kodai Senga struck out 10 while allowing two singles and three walks over eight innings as SoftBank pressed league champion Seibu to the brink of elimination.

For the second-straight day, Taisei Makihara singled to open the game and scored on an Akira Nakamura first-inning single. But while Nakamura was the Hawks’ big bopper on Thursday, it was their second baseman’s night Friday.

Makihara, who made a good play to defuse a third-inning situation before it erupted, doubled in two runs with a hard grounder over the first base bag in the second, hit a two-run homer in the fourth, and Senga did most of the remaining work.

The Hawks are trying to match a franchise record by appearing in three consecutive Japan Series, something their Osaka-based predecessors, the Nankai Hawks achieved from 1951-1953 and again from 1964-1966.

The Lions, meanwhile are trying to avoid becoming the first PL regular season leader to lose the final stage of the PL postseason since the Daiei Hawks lost to the Lions in 2004 and Bobby Valentine’s Lotte Marines in 2005.

Game highlights are HERE.

News

High school fireballer Sasaki completes talks with teams

Flame-throwing right-hander Roki Sasaki met with scouts from the Pacific League’s SoftBank Hawks and Seibu Lions on Friday, the last of 11 clubs slated to meet with the pitcher who will likely go in the first round of NPB’s amateur draft on Thursday.

The Nippon Ham Fighters, potentially a prime destination for a player with his eye on a major league future, did not meet with the youngster, although the club has already asserted it will nominate Sasaki as its first draft choice. Although Sasaki suggested last week he would play for any NPP team and had no thoughts at the moment about playing in the majors, the Fighters have a history of using the posting system to allow their stars to get an early start in the majors.

The Hawks, and the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants, are at the other end of that spectrum, and to date have refused to post players, forcing them to wait until they are eligible for international free agency to leave.

The Hawks’ chief amateur scout, Yutaro Fukuyama, tried to sell the youngster on Hawks owner Masayoshi Son’s vision of creating the world’s strongest team and its strong development setup.

“He’s one of our candidates for the first pick,” Fukuyama said. “No player in my 20 years of scouting has offered the promise that this amazing athlete does. His ceiling is impossible to imagine.”

Fighters throw in towel for Hancock, Barbato

The Nippon Ham Fighters said Friday they will not bring first-year pitchers Johnny Barbato and Justin Hancock back for the 2020 season.

The 28-year-old Hancock injured his right shoulder on May 11, and has twice gone back to the United States for examinations. He pitched in eight games with one loss, two holds and two saves and posted a 9.00 ERA. Barbato, who was used in relief and as a short starter, pitched in 15 games, going 2-2 with one hold with a 5.63 ERA.