Rakuten has given Tohoku its first postseason games and now it's time for the Golden Eagles to make the most of the opportunity against the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks as the Pacific League Climax Series' first stage opens today in Sendai.
The Hawks' starting pitching has been a two-man show this season with southpaw Toshiya Sugiuchi and right-hander D.J. Houlton. If the five-year-old Eagles can win one of the first two games, they should be able to score against whoever first-year SoftBank skipper Koji Akiyama throws in Game 3.
If Sugiyama and Houlton can get the job done, the series may turn on pitching and defense.
"I think we will see pitchers' duels, and those will turn on defense," Akiyama said. "If we don't make mistakes, we should get a good result. We've come this far. Everything depends on doing their jobs where they are in the field."
Sugiuchi will start Game 1 today against Eagles right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma. Both are veterans of the World Baseball Classic and accustomed to high-pressure games, while Sugiuchi was also the MVP of the 2003 Japan Series.
Sugiuchi has been the better of the two this season and has been solid in eight of his last nine starts, while Iwakuma missed a few starts between June and July and has rarely hit the highs that saw him win the Sawamura and PL MVP awards last season.
Each team will be without a top run producer. The Eagles' Todd Linden has been banished because manager Katsuya Nomura didn't like his attitude, while the Hawks are without injured veteran slugger Nobuhiko Matsunaka.
The Hawks offense is a little better as is their bullpen--rookie Tadashi Settsu is the most consistent middle reliever for either team. Despite the SoftBankers' lack of a dependable third starter, however, the teams are evenly matched.
"I don't think you can base too much on how we matched up in the season," Nomura said. "All we can do is take care of business. If big-game experience is a factor, then we might be in trouble."