While the Chunichi Dragons clinched their Central League postseason berth several weeks ago, the Yakult Swallows had to battle right down to the wire to make it to the big dance.
The Swallows, who tanked in August and September, were one of the hottest teams down the homestretch, beating the Hanshin Tigers in some crucial late-season games to sew up third place, while the Dragons seemed to take their foot off the gas pedal down the stretch, having secured a second-place finish earlier in the season.
How this plays out when the teams hook up for the best-of-three Stage 1 of the CL Climax Series starting Saturday at Nagoya Dome remains to be seen, but the Swallows like their chances going in. Yakult took the season series 13-11 in 2009.
"(The Dragons) are a strong team, they have good starting pitchers and a dynamic offense," Yakult outfielder Aaron Guiel pointed out during a workout Thursday at Jingu Stadium. "We have to be on top of our game to match up well with them. If you look on paper, they are probably a stronger team, but this year our pitching staff and our offense have matched up very well with them, so I think it will be an exciting series."
The Dragons lost some key personnel after last season, with the departure of staff ace Kenshin Kawakami to the Atlanta Braves and the retirement of slugging first-baseman Tyrone Woods. But Hiromitsu Ochiai's team hardly missed a beat: RHP Kazuki Yoshimi tied for the league lead with 16 wins while posting a 2.00 ERA with 147 strikeouts and Dominican Tony Blanco took over at first and rapped out a CL-best 39 home runs.
Taiwanese lefty Chen Wei-yin also came up big for Chunichi, with a miniscule 1.54 ERA that was tops in the league to go along with his CL-best 0.93 WHIP and 146 Ks. Starters Yudai Kawai and Kenta Asakura also registered double-digits in wins, while reliever Takuya Asao was a workhorse for Ochiai this season, often setting the table for closer Hitoki Iwase, who led the CL with 41 saves.
On offense, the heart of the Dragons order can be fierce on opposing pitchers. Blanco also led the CL with 110 RBIs and Masahiko Morino was right behind the big guy with 109. Veteran outfielder Kazuhiro Wada hit over .300 while whacking 29 homers and driving in 87.
At the top of the order, shortstop Hirokazu Ibata hit .306 while second baseman Masahiro Araki gave opposing catchers fits with 37 stolen bases.
Across the diamond, the Swallows got off to a hot start this season thanks largely to some outstanding starting pitching and a bullpen that was lights out for a while. They eventually cooled off, but right-hander Shohei Tateyama had a fine season, tying Yoshimi for the league lead with 16 wins and whiffing 126 batters, while lefty Masanori Ishikawa was a 13-game winner with a 1.16 WHIP for manager Shigeru Takada's staff in 2009. Yoshinori Sato or Yuki Tanaka will likely get the other start, should the series go three games.
Out of the bullpen, Ryota Igarashi and Kenichi Matsuoka had solid seasons and for a while South Korean closer Lim Chang Yong and his 159-kph fastball were literally unhittable. Lim ran into a bit of a rough patch midway through the season but he still saved 28 games while posting a 2.05 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP.
On offense, Norichika Aoki bounced back from a subpar start to once again bump his average north of .300. Aoki also cranked out 16 homers and ended up with an on-base percentage of .400.
Guiel smacked a team-high 27 homers and drove in 80 runs, despite seeing limited playing time, and his .533 slugging percentage and .900 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) were right up there with the league leaders. The left-handed hitting Guiel murdered Chunichi pitching this season, hitting over .370 against the Dragons with nine HRs.
Also in the mix is first-year infielder Jamie D'Antona, who was ripping it up before injuring a hamstring in August. D'Antona, who still led the club with 83 RBIs and belted 21 home runs this season in just 391 at-bats, is good to go now.
Yakult also has some speed on the basepaths with fleet-footed outfielder Kazuki Fukuchi leading the league in steals with 42.
The Swallows got bitten by the injury bug down the stretch but they are getting healthy just in time. Catcher Ryoji Aikawa (hip), second-baseman Hiroyasu Tanaka (calf), veteran infielder Shinya Miyamoto (broken thumb), D'Antona (hamstring) and pitchers Lim and Igarashi all missed time late in the season but all are expected to be available for Takada in Nagoya.
Keizo Kawashima, the team's starting shortstop most of the season, is still on the shelf after undergoing elbow surgery, but Yuji Onizaki has filled in admirably in his absence.
The winner of the first stage earns a date with the league champion Yomiuri Giants. All games in the best-of-seven Stage 2 will be at Tokyo Dome with the Giants enjoying a 1-0 lead going in.