The Pacific League's Seibu Lions pretty much had their way with the Yomiuri Giants in interleague play this season, outscoring their Central League brothers 23-10 and posting a 3-1 record over four games between the clubs.
However, the consensus--at least among the Giants--is "that was then, this is now."
"(Back then) our team was not complete--we had guys hurt, guys in the minors," Yomiuri outfielder Alex Ramirez said Friday at Tokyo Dome, as the clubs went through their final practice sessions ahead of Saturday night's opening game of the Japan Series. "Now, our opponents have a couple of guys hurt, and we go in fully loaded."
Well, not quite, Rami. It is true that pitcher Koji Uehara has rediscovered his form and slugging first-baseman Lee Seung Yeop is back with the big club doing his thing, but outfielder Yoshinobu Takahashi is out for the series with a sore back and, more importantly, All-Star catcher Shinnosuke Abe has been relegated to DH/pinch-hitter status after separating his shoulder the day the Giants clinched the Central League title.
Ramirez, who finished first in the CL with 125 RBIs, second with 45 home runs and hit .319, was part of the influx of foreign talent that Yomiuri brass brought in over the offseason. The team shelled out big money on free-agents Ramirez, right-hander Seth Greisinger and closer Marc Kroon, and they all put up impressive numbers. Greisinger led the league for the second straight year in wins with 17 and the hard-throwing Kroon booked a CL-best 41 saves. This club was built to win--and win now.
"In spring, we knew we had a team to compete," continued Ramirez, who had some clutch home runs and was named MVP of the CL Climax Series as Yomiuri dispatched the defending Japan Series champion Chunichi Dragons. "Now, we've just got to continue. This is the team people thought we'd be at the beginning of the season."
Giants manager Tatsunori Hara called the loss of Abe behind the plate "a difficult situation," but he added: "All of our pitchers are in good condition."
As is the norm in Japanese baseball, neither manager would reveal his pitching rotation. Veteran Uehara is a good bet to start Game 1 against Seibu ace Hideaki Wakui. After that, Hara is likely to roll out 12-game winner Tetsuya Utsumi, Hisanori Takahashi and Greisinger, while Lions skipper Hisanobu Watanabe also has Takayuki Kishi (12-4), veteran Fumiya Nishiguchi and 11-game winners Kazuyuki Hoashi and Kaz Ishii ready to go.
The Giants bullpen is bolstered by lefty Tetsuya Yamaguchi, who won 11 games out of the pen this year, Daisuke Ochi, Kiyoshi Toyoda and, of course, the mercurial Kroon.
The big guns in Watanabe's bullpen are relievers Shinya Okamoto, a former Dragon, and left-hander Tomoki Hoshino, who led the Leos with 25 holds in 2008, while closer Alex Graman posted 31 saves.
"Starting pitching is the key to how the games go," said Seibu first-year manager Watanabe. "That is the main factor."
Giants reliever Kroon agrees.
"Pitching wins championships," said Kroon, "and when it comes down to pitching in this series, I like our chances. Our bullpen has been solid all year and I like our starters."
Offensively, both teams have some big boppers. Ramirez is always a threat to go deep and Seibu third-baseman Takeya Nakamura bashed a league-leading 46 taters this year and drove in over 100 runs.
Seibu had five players with 20 or more home runs in '08--Nakamura, Craig Brazell (27), shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima and outfielder G.G. Sato (20 each), and Hiram Bocachica (20)--but two of them are currently out of commission.
Brazell is back home in the United States with headache symptoms after taking a pitch in the head earlier this season and Sato is hobbled by a bad ankle, although he may see limited action.
Kroon feels one key to winning the series is keeping the Lions No. 1 and 2 hitters, Yasuyuki Kataoka and Takumi Kuriyama, off the basepaths.
"Guaranteed, if we're going to win we've got to keep their 1-2 guys off the bases," Kroon said. "You put them on, they steal a base, then their big hitters (Nakajima, Nakamura) come up. You've got to make them put the ball in play--the key to our success is to keep the top two guys off base, simple as that."
The best-of-seven series starts off with two games at Tokyo Dome this weekend before moving to Seibu Dome for games Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Games 6 and 7, if necessary, will be back at Tokyo Dome next Saturday and Sunday.
Since 1950, the Giants have won 20 Japan Series championships, the last in 2002. The Lions have won 12 titles, three as the Nishitetsu Lions and nine under Seibu ownership, most recently in 2004.