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Rob Smaal

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Eagles, Hawks kick off NPB postseason

by Rob Smaal (Oct 16, 2009)

The good news in Sendai is the upstart Rakuten Eagles are making their first trip to the postseason in just their fifth year of operation.

The bad news is that they are going into Stage 1 of their Pacific League Climax Series against the Softbank Hawks under a dark cloud.

When the teams square off tonight in Game 1 of the best-of-three series, all at Kleenex Stadium in Miyagi, the Eagles will be without outfielder Todd Linden. The former major-leaguer, who has provided an offensive spark (12 HRs, .292 batting average) and played some good defense since joining the club in June, angered manager Katsuya Nomura over the weekend when he apparently made a sarcastic remark to the crusty skipper after he was called on to pinch hit late in a meaningless game.

Nomura, who was quoted by Kyodo News as saying, "I won't stand for players criticizing the manager," promptly suspended Linden for the entire first-round series.

Adding to the drama in the Rakuten camp is the future of Nomura himself. The 74-year-old manager, who took the helm in 2006, has already been told by the club that he is gone after this season, possibly to be replaced by former Hiroshima Carp manager Marty Brown. That news has not sat well with Nomura.

While that all plays out, the rest of the players on the team have gone about getting ready for the playoffs. With three talented young right-handers on the pitching staff and the league's leading hitter, this is a team that could very well advance in a short series.

Masahiro Tanaka has been the ace of Nomura's staff this season. Still just 21, Tanaka won 15 games in the 2009 season, posted an ERA of 2.33 and struck out 171, despite being dropped from the roster for two weeks in May with a shoulder strain, likely the result of his dominant start to the season when he tossed four consecutive complete-game victories and was sporting a 0.50 ERA.

After that, it doesn't get much easier for the Hawks. Despite feuding with Nomura, who has questioned his "fighting spirit" all season long, Hisashi Iwakuma won 13 games with a 3.25 ERA this season after being Japan's most impressive pitcher in the World Baseball Classic.

Next up is Satoshi Nagai, another 13-game winner who posted a 3.42 ERA with 144 Ks this season.

Leading the offense is left-handed hitting outfielder Teppei Tsuchiya, whose .327 average was tops in the PL. Also on offense, Daisuke Kusano hit .305 in 2009 and 41-year-old ageless wonder Takeshi Yamasaki hammered 39 home runs and chalked up 107 RBIs this year.

With Linden being sent to his room and Rick Short recovering from shoulder surgery, Fernando Seguignol is expected to contribute with his bat. The big Panamanian belted 14 HRs in 316 at-bats in 2009.

In Fukuoka, first-year manager Koji Akiyama piloted a club picked by few to be contenders this season to a third-place finish and a berth in the postseason. Unfortunately for Koji & Co., the Hawks will be without the bat of Nobuhiko Matsunaka in Sendai. The veteran slugger decided to have surgery on his balky right knee and his left elbow and his 23 HRs and 80 RBIs in the heart of the order will be difficult to replace.

Still, the Hawks will pack some punch. Catcher Hidenori Tanoue whacked 26 homers in 2009 and also drove in 80 runs, Jose Ortiz contributed 20 longballs and veteran Hiroki Kokubo had 81 RBIs. Yuya Hasegawa hit .312 and rabbits Munenori Kawasaki and Yuichi Honda stole 44 and 43 bases, respectively.

On the mound, lefty Toshiya Sugiuchi had another fine season with 15 wins, a 2.36 ERA and 204 strikeouts. American right-hander D.J. Houlton won 11 games with an ERA of 2.89 and 138 Ks. Both men are among the league leaders in WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched), with Houlton at 1.05 and Sugiuchi right behind him on 1.09.

Closer Takahiro Mahara has rediscovered his form of years past, posting 29 saves for the club this season.

It should be interesting to see how the soap opera in Sendai plays out. If the distracted Eagles can focus on the task at hand, they may be headed to Sapporo for Stage 2. If not, much like their cantankerous manager, they could quickly find themselves on the outside looking in, left to rue what might have been.

The winner of this series takes on the league champion Nippon-Ham Fighters in a best-of-seven in Hokkaido. The Fighters start that series with a one-game advantage and will host all the games at Sapporo Dome.


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