The reigning Japan Series champion Saitama Seibu Lions were just a couple of whiskers better in head-to-head games against the Chiba Lotte Marines last season.
They open Pacific League play with the first of a three-game set at Chiba Marine Stadium today at 6:30 p.m. against a new-look Lotte team ready to wage war.
The Lions will send ace Hideaki Wakui to the mound in the opener against 10-year Lotte veteran Naoki Shimizu, making his first Opening Day start in two years.
The Marines enter the season with skipper Bobby Valentine--in lame-duck status in his final season on the Lotte bench--and with newcomer Tadahito Iguchi, who has injected new life into a club that won the Japan Series in 2005.
Valentine spoke on Thursday at Chiba Marine Stadium with the confidence of a man in the driver's seat of a team that has Iguchi riding shotgun.
"I always say the batting order's not about one person, it's about nine people," Valentine said.
"And we will have very good hitters in our lineup. Iguchi is definitely in the plans and I don't know why anybody would think he'd hit anywhere but fourth," said the Lotte skipper, who then fired off an opening shot.
"He said he wants to drive in over a hundred [runs], hit over 30 home runs and he wants to hit .300, and if he does that batting fourth on our team, we'll win the pennant," Valentine proclaimed about his club, which was 11-13 against Seibu last season.
The Lions, meanwhile, have their sights set on more than just Iguchi.
"We lost some tough games to them last year, and in the pitching department, we had our issues," Seibu manager Hisanobu Watanabe said.
"The way they put pressure on you by stringing together hits and the way they are aggressive early in the count is how they hurt you. Last year, they stung us in a lot of key situations.
"They got us good and we want to give it them like they gave to us," said Watanabe, who added that the Marines' new cleanup man has a lot of impact on Lotte's lineup.
"It's huge for them to have Iguchi batting fourth," Watanabe said. "He's a guy who has had good numbers here and has played in the majors, too. I feel like the other players will rally around him."
The Lions, though, can rally around World Baseball Classic star Hiroyuki Nakajima.
Watanabe said his 26-year-old shortstop "has a look of confidence" since returning from Japan's WBC repeat.
But amid numerous experts picking the Lions to repeat in the PL, Watanabe reminded his team, which was 6-9-1 in the preseason, to take on all challengers...as challengers.
"We have developed from a team of youths into a team of adults--but still unseasoned adults," the second-year skipper quipped.
In the other Pacific League openers, Nippon Ham hosts Rakuten at Sapporo Dome in a matchup between WBC mound stars Yu Darvish of the Fighters and the Eagles' Hisashi Iwakuma, while Orix opens in Fukuoka.
"Since we wrapped up the Asian Series last year, we've been working toward getting ready for the season and we are in great shape for the opener. I've stressed to the players that we have to reset everything and there is a new challenging starting for us this year. And I get the sense that the players feel that way."
Hiroyuki Kobayashi will likely follow Shimizu for Lotte, with Shingo Ono starting Sunday. Kazuyuki Hoashi, who was 3-0 against Lotte last season, is expected to follow Wakui in the rotation, with ex-Yomiuri Giant John Wasdin taking the hill for the finale of a pair of weekend day games.
Wakui spent most of the spring as part of the Japan's bullpen during the WBC and isn't really prepped for a long outing.
"We'll have him go as long as he can," Watanabe said. "He was mostly a long reliever during the WBC and in the short period of time he has been back with the team, he hasn't really had the chance to get in the condition that would allow him to go the distance. But, he's our ace so we're starting with him."