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THE HOT CORNER: Look for upstarts to take wing

by Jim Allen (Oct 15, 2009)

With the pennant races decided, the big question is: Who is going to go all the way? Of course, going all the way is a misnomer when the Japan Series can be won by a team that didn't even win its league.

That happened in 2007, when the Chunichi Dragons finished second before running the table in the playoffs and punching out the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in five games.

Finishing first only gives you the top seed in the playoffs and a pile of advantages--all your games at home, a first-round bye, a one-win advantage and only needing to finish .500 in the second stage. But with those games a week away, let's focus on the first round for the time being.

On Friday, the Pacific League's pretenders take the field in Sendai, with the surprising Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles facing the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks for the right to fight Nippon Ham in Sapporo.

A day later, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows will take on the Dragons in Nagoya for the chance to play this year's most dominant team, the Yomiuri Giants.

The Eagles could have been the favorites of the first stage based on their strong finish (21-14 from Sept. 1) and Katsuya Nomura's exceptionally good postseason managing record. However, the fifth-year club enters the PL Climax Series embroiled in the kind of turmoil that periodically surrounds Nomura.

The skipper, who spent most of the past week complaining about the Eagles' management keeping him in limbo over his contract for next season, struck another target of opportunity on Sunday.

After Nomura and head coach Hideki Hashigami caught some flak from Todd Linden after the outfielder was omitted from the starting lineup last Saturday, Nomura struck his second-most productive hitter (per at-bat) from the active roster.

Linden's reported failure to kowtow in his Tuesday apology in the boss' office infuriated Nomura, pushing his postseason deeper into doubt.

The Hawks' 13-16 record over the past five weeks was largely because they failed to transform a lot of scoring opportunities into actual runs. The Eagles were like that for much of the season, but finally started to click in the final months.

In the CL, the Swallows take their .497 regular-season winning percentage into what looks like a slaughter on paper, but won't be.

The Swallows, who regained their composure to finish the regular season with six straight victories, match up well against the Dragons. Although Chunichi is tough in its home dome, the big park plays into the hands of a good defensive club with excellent team speed such as the Swallows, who are 11-10 there the past two seasons.

The Dragons have two things in their favor: offense and manager Hiromitsu Ochiai's record. In 2007, Ochiai ended Chunichi's history of postseason failure, and he fell short of the Series last season despite a 3-3-1 record in the playoffs.

The Dragons offense is one of the best in Japan and CL home run leader Tony Blanco gives them an extra gear the Swallows don't possess.

Yakult's Aaron Guiel believes the Swallows pitching is as good as the Dragons, but Shohei Tateyama, Masanori Ishikawa and Yoshinori Sato will have to be at the top of their games to make it an even battle. Manager Shigeru Takada said the 19-year-old Sato is a question mark.

"He has the stuff," Takada said Monday. "If he has a little better control than he's shown recently, he'll be fine. Yoshinori needs to come out roaring."

The Swallows will be able to steal and cause some havoc on the bases, but so will the Dragons--if Yakult catcher Ryoji Aikawa remains out or is playing hurt.

The Swallows are outgunned, but anything can happen in a three-game series.

One should be satisfied to leave it at that, stating points but offering few conclusions. Even though this is not an issue of Olympic proportions, it's at best tedious to say "I told you so" a week later, so here are the Hot Corner's picks for the first stage.

The Swallows will squeak past the Dragons and take the battle to Tokyo Dome, where the dominant Giants await.

While it may be hard to rally around Grumpy the Dwarf, the Eagles will manage to ignore Nomura's noise long enough to book their tickets to the second stage against Nippon Ham.


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