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Tyrone Woods & Co. say this is the year of the Dragon

by Rob Smaal / Staff Writer (Oct 25, 2007)

For the Chunichi Dragons, it's a case of been there, but haven't quite done that--at least not in the past 53 years.

The Dragons are back in the Japan Series again this season, thanks to the fact that the old cronies who run the Central League finally saw fit to institute a playoff system.

A year ago, the Dragons fell in five games to the Nippon-Ham Fighters, a result they hope to reverse when the teams face off again for Japanese baseball supremacy starting Saturday in Sapporo.

Chunichi, the CL pennant winners last season, finished the regular season a game-and-a-half behind 2007 champions the Yomiuri Giants. That meant the Nagoya club faced a first-round best-of-three with the third-place Hanshin Tigers and then a best-of-five with the Giants for the right to represent the league in the Japan Series.

Five games later, the Tigers and Giants--the two glamour clubs of Japanese baseball--are on the golf course and Hiromitsu Ochiai is preparing his men for another run at the Fighters.

Offensively, the Dragons have a lot of pop in their lineup, thanks mostly to cleanup hitter Tyrone Woods, who cleared the fences three times in those five postseason games.

Woods is a three-time CL home-run king who smacked 35 out of the park this season and drove in over a hundred runs again (102), a fantastic season for your average player but just par for the course for Woods, who led the CL in HRs (47) and RBIs (144) in 2006 to go along with a .310 average.

Not bad for a guy who never played a game in the major leagues.

Batting on either side of Woods are Masahiko "Mr. Three-Run" Morino and resurgent veteran Norihiro Nakamura. The left-handed hitting Morino showed some power this year with 18 home runs, eight of the three-run variety, hence the catchy nickname. He also accounted for 97 ribbies while batting .294.

At the age of 34, Nakamura was a bit of a reclamation project for Chunichi, and one that paid off handsomely. Signed to a minor-league deal this year for just 4 million yen, the veteran third baseman ended up making the big club and went on to show that he is not ready for the scrap heap just yet. The big-swinging Nori hit .293 this year with 20 home runs and 79 RBIs over 130 games. In the first-stage playoff sweep of Hanshin, Nakamura went a team-best 5-for-8 (.625).

Nakamura's bat also helped ease the loss of perennial All-Star outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, who was limited to just 81 games this season due to surgery in August to remove bone fragments from his right elbow.

Another player who has stepped up his play in the postseason is Motonobu Tanishige. A light-hitting catcher during the regular season (.236 average, six HRs, 44 RBIs), Tanishige's bat came alive in the playoffs. In the Climax Series second stage against the Giants, the 19-year veteran hit .583, including a home run in the clinching Game 3 at Tokyo Dome, and he is 10-for-19 so far in the postseason.

On the mound, the Dragons are led by a trio of potent right-handers. Veteran Kenshin Kawakami was 12-8 with a 3.55 ERA this year after a stellar 2006 season that saw him post a 17-7 record with a 2.51 ERA and 194 strikeouts. He threw seven shutout innings of two-hit ball in the first-stage opener against Hanshin and also picked up a win against the Giants in stage two.

Youngster Kenichi Nakata won 14 games this season, posting an ERA of 3.59 and striking out 177 along the way. He allowed two runs on six hits while whiffing 11 in Game 3 of the Giants' series. Kenta Asakura won a dozen games and posted a 3.35 ERA in the regular season.

Closer Hitoki Iwase is almost automatic. He saved 43 regular-season games this season--the third straight year he had 40 or more--and four of the five Dragons' playoff wins, allowing one hit and no runs in six innings of postseason work.

And don't forget about that stone-faced dude in the dugout. One Central League player said that, in his opinion, Ochiai is the best manager in the league simply because he hands in his lineup card and then sits back and lets the players play the game. Since Ochiai is not prone to panic--in fact, he never seems to show any emotion at all--pitchers don't have to worry about a quick hook if they walk a couple of batters and his hitters can relax a little more at the plate.

After splitting the first two games in Nagoya last year, the series moved up to Hokkaido and the Fighters won three straight as the Dragons' bats fell silent, something Woods is keen to avoid this time around.

"We've got to win by all means, do whatever it takes," said Woods after knocking off Yomiuri three-and-out. "We just want to go in and play relaxed, get some timely hits."

The Dragons, who have been to the Japan Series seven times--most recently in 1999, 2004 and 2006--won their one and only championship in 1954, the year after current skipper Ochiai was born.

(IHT/Asahi: October 25, 2007)


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