The Yomiuri Giants are hoping that another lengthy layoff won't scuttle their shot at a Japan Series title this year.
Just like last season, the Giants won the Central League pennant again this year, earning a first-stage bye in the CL Climax Series playoffs.
While Yomiuri will start the second stage of the league playoffs with a couple of huge advantages, they are praying that the rust that built up last year over a two-week layoff between their final regular-season game and their first playoff contest will not creep into play again this month.
In an effort to make sure that doesn't happen, manager Tatsunori Hara is packing up the whole crew and heading down to the team's spring camp site in Miyazaki to play a few practice games to keep his club sharp.
"Considering what happened last year, I think going down to Myazaki and playing a few games will help us better prepare for this season's playoffs," said American right-hander Seth Greisinger, the ace of Hara's staff who went 17-9 in his first year with the club.
In 2007, the Giants won the CL flag with an 80-63-1 record. While the second-place Chunichi Dragons took out the Hanshin Tigers in two straight in the first stage of playoffs, the Giants sat around twiddling their thumbs, awaiting the winner of that series. When they finally got back to business the Dragons brought their brooms out once again, sweeping the Giants in three straight at Tokyo Dome before dispatching the Pacific League's Nippon-Ham Fighters in five games in the Japan Series.
This year, the Giants played their final regular-season game on Oct. 11, a 3-2 win over the Yakult Swallows a day after they clinched their 32nd CL title. They next play a meaningful game on Wednesday, Oct. 22, when they take on the winner of the Tigers-Dragons best-of-three that starts Saturday in Osaka at Kyocera Dome. The second-place Tigers, already licking a few wounds after blowing a 13-game lead over their Tokyo rivals down the stretch, will not have the emotional lift of playing in the friendly confines of fabled Koshien Stadium this postseason as the landmark undergoes renovations.
In the CL Climax Series second stage, the Giants not only play every game at home at their own Dome but they also go into the best-of-seven series already up 1-0 in games. Yes, that's right ... it's a best-of-seven series with a maximum of six games to be played.
"The winner of the Tigers-Dragons series may have a slight conditioning edge, but with a 1-0 lead and home-field advantage I also think it's important to remember that the pressure will be on our opponent," said Greisinger. "We have to maintain the aggressiveness and confidence we had in the last few months of the regular season."
One thing working against the Giants is a late-season injury to starting catcher Shinnosuke Abe, who separated his shoulder diving into second base during last Friday's 3-1 pennant-clincher at Jingu Stadium and also had his forearm spiked, requiring several stitches. Abe, who drove in two runs that day with a solo homer and an RBI double before getting hurt, not only calls a good game behind the plate but is also a key contributor offensively with 24 home runs on his resume this year.
Still, with run-producers like Alex Ramirez (.319 batting average, 45 HRs, 125 RBIs), Michihiro Ogasawara (.310, 36 HRs, 96 RBIs) and resurgent slugger Lee Seung Yeop in their lineup, the Giants should be tough to beat for whoever ends up facing them.
Besides Greisinger, Hara will roll out starters Tetsuya Utsumi (12-8, 2.73 ERA), Koji Uehara, Hisanori Takahashi and Aussie left-hander Adrian Burnside. Hard-throwing closer Marc Kroon had a memorable first year with Yomiuri, setting a club record with 41 saves.
In the Pacific League, the Fighters are trying to make it back to the Japan Series for the third straight year. Under former skipper Trey Hillman, the Sapporo Nine won it all in 2006 and fell in the finals to the Dragons last year.
With new manager Masataka Nashida at the helm, the Hammies have already bumped second seeds the Orix Buffaloes out of the PL Climax Series in two straight and next take on PL pennant winners the Seibu Lions for the right to represent the league in the Japan Series. The Leos, too, are hoping their recent inactivity won't work against them.
That best-of-seven starts tonight at Omiya Park with Seibu also enjoying a 1-0 advantage over the Fighters going in. Subsequent games in that series will be played at Seibu Dome in Saitama.
The 2008 Japan Series is scheduled for Nov. 1-9. The first two games will take place at the home of the CL representative, with the following three games hosted by the PL club. Games 6 and 7, if necessary, will be back at the CL club's home park.