The Yomiuri Giants are a team built to win championships. They came close last year, losing in seven games to the Seibu Lions, but anything less than a Japan Series victory this time around will be a major disappointment.
"We've got one more series to go," manager Tatsunori Hara said after the Giants dispatched the Chunichi Dragons in Stage 2 of the Central League Climax Series.
"We lost last year, but we expect to win it all this year," echoed pinch hitter-infielder Ryota Wakiya, the MVP of that Climax Series.
Heading into Saturday's Japan Series opener against the Pacific League champion Nippon-Ham Fighters, the Giants have to feel like a confident bunch. After all, they won't have to face F's ace Yu Darvish, the 15-game winner with a PL-best 1.73 ERA who is expected to miss the entire series with a back injury.
Playing half their games in the friendly confines of Tokyo Dome, a notorious launching pad, the Central League champion Giants put up some impressive power numbers this season. Four starters hammered 25 or more home runs during the regular season, but with Nippon-Ham holding home-field advantage, four of the possible seven games are scheduled for the much more "spacious" Sapporo Dome (more on that later), including Saturday's Game 1.
But the Giants also rolled out seven guys who hit .290 or better and the club got some key contributions from the non-starters as well.
"Our effort this year was a total team effort," said catcher Shinnosuke Abe, the Giants' captain who hit .293 with a team-high 32 homers in 2009. "The bench players supported the regulars and they were a big reason we did so well in the regular season and the Climax Series."
The heart of the Yomiuri order can be murder on opposing pitchers with CL MVP candidates Michihiro Ogasawara, a former Fighter, and Alex Ramirez hitting in the 3-4 holes. Ramirez and Ogasawara each whacked 31 homers and drove in more than 100 runs apiece while hitting .322 and .309, respectively.
While the bigger park in Sapporo--actually the dimensions are quite similar but the Sapporo Dome has a higher outfield wall and the jet streams at Tokyo Dome tend to carry the ball farther--may mean less balls leave the yard up north, the games in Hokkaido will be played under PL rules, giving Hara the luxury of using Ramirez as a designated hitter instead of in left field.
Rami has never been known for his defense and the DH factor will give Hara the option of playing Lee Seung Yeop at first base while Yoshiyuki Kamei moves to the outfield with Tetsuya Matsumoto and Yoshitomo Tani. Lee walloped 16 HRs in just 223 at-bats this season.
The team's leadoff hitter, young shortstop Hayato Sakamoto, hit .306 with 18 home runs this season and pesky little No. 2 batter Matsumoto hit at a .364 clip in the Climax Series victory over the Dragons.
On the mound, Hara is looking at a rotation led off by right-hander Dicky Gonzalez, who was 15-2 this year, but who came out flat against Chunichi in Game 1 of the Climax Series, where he got torched for five runs in the first inning of a 7-2 loss. Gonzalez is hoping for a big pay raise over the offseason so he will be keyed up in the opener if, as expected, he gets the ball.
Lefty Tetsuya Utsumi (9-11, 2.96 ERA, 1.10 WHIP) should be next on the tee, followed by RHP Wirfin Obispo (6-1, 2.45 ERA). Hisanori Takahashi (10-6, 2.94 ERA), another left-hander, and Shun Tono (8-8, 3.17 ERA, 1.24 WHIP), a young righty, should round out the rotation.
American 13-game winner Seth Greisinger, who missed the Climax Series with inflammation in his pitching elbow, is done for the year and will not see action in the Japan Series.
Daisuke Ochi and Tetsuya Yamaguchi have both been valuable contributors out of the bullpen and closer Marc Kroon nailed down 27 saves for the club in 2009 after racking up a CL-best 41 in 2008. Gonzalez, Yamaguchi and Obispo all posted sub-1.00 WHIPs this season.
"The Nippon-Ham batters know the game and they know how to hit," Hara said. "Their lineup has both power and speed and they have a good pitching staff. But if we can stay healthy, we should be OK in the Japan Series."
Games 1 and 2 are at Sapporo Dome this weekend before the series shifts to Tokyo Dome for games Tuesday, Wednesday and, if necessary, Thursday. If the best-of-seven is still not decided, the teams head back to Sapporo for Games 6 and 7 on Nov. 7-8.
The Giants have been to the Japan Series 31 times and have prevailed in 20 of those matchups. Their most recent victory in the Series was in 2002.