It's just like the old times.
Starting today, the Central League champion Yomiuri Giants take on their longtime Pacific League foes, the Seibu Lions, in the best-of-seven Japan Series.
For the first time since 2003, the Series will feature each league's regular-season winner, and these two clubs have been there before. In the 10th autumn showcase Series between the storied franchises, the Lions hold a 6-3 lead but lost the last two meetings, in 1994 and 2004.
"For players of my generation, a Yomiuri-Seibu Japan Series was the biggest stage there was," Giants skipper Tatsunori Hara said after his team booked its Series berth.
The rivalry dates back to 1956, when the Fukuoka-based Nishitetsu Lions won the first of three straight against the Giants. After Yomiuri beat Nishitetsu for the first time in 1963, the PL powerhouse went into decline, while the Giants won nine straight Series from 1965 to 1973.
It took nearly 20 years for the Lions to find a dynasty on the shores of Tama Lake. But a few seasons after moving to Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, under the ownership of the Seibu group in 1979, the Lions once more became legends of the fall.
From 1982 to 1994, the Lions won 11 PL titles and eight Series crowns under the joyless disciplinarian management of former Giants stars Tatsuro Hirooka and Masaaki Mori.
"I've battled the Lions as a player, a coach and also as a manager," Hara said Friday after his team practiced. "They are a team overflowing with history. We've had great battles. I expect it to be a great series."
These Lions, however, are more akin to their colorful big-swinging ancestors from Fukuoka and little like the club the Giants swept in 2002. That squad, managed by current Giants head coach Haruki Ihara, was so tight in the Series that the players squeaked.
"Things changed a lot last year when they hired a new manager," Hara said. "They are a young team that can really get on a roll."
The Lions got on a roll early but when it comes to overrunning all comers, it is tough to do better than Hara's Giants, who went 49-22-1 over the second half.
After early slumps and injuries, the Giants came out at full strength toward the end of the season, hitting 20 points higher and going from 71 home runs in the first half to 106 in the second.
"The Giants team we played [in interleague] and the Giants now are completely different," said first-year Lions skipper Hisanobu Watanabe. "It's big to be playing the Giants in the Series, but we know how we got here.
"We worked so hard from camp with this as our goal. I expect a tough fight, we just have to go out and play good ball. I want to see the players enjoy themselves.
Both clubs hit for power. The Lions' 198 home runs was the highest figure in Japan, while the Giants' 177 was next. But their games are deeper than that. Both clubs have speed. Although Hara's Giants are not a big base-stealing team, his enthusiasm for using young players gives his club more team speed than Yomiuri fans have been accustomed to in the past 15 years.
The Lions are a bigger threat to steal--especially with substitute Kazunari Tsuruoka catching in place of injured Giants captain Shinnosuke Abe--but their lack of plate discipline and walks could prevent them from running wild in the Series.
Although the Lions' pitching frequently wobbled during the season, Watanabe said solid starts could be Seibu's key to victory.
"In the playoffs, we lost the games in which our starting pitcher struggled," Watanabe said.
"If they keep us in the game, we will compete."
Lacking slugger Craig Brazell and likely without power-hitter G.G. Sato, who combined for 48 homers, Watanabe will have fewer ways to unsettle his opponents--something Hara believes will be critical.
"To win, we need to play our game and keep the other guys from getting into a rhythm," Hara said. "Most of all, winning means playing our game, playing Giants baseball."