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Rob Smaal

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Good old-fashioned pennant races could be on tap

by Rob Smaal (Jul 26, 2010)

The way this NPB season is shaping up, there could be a couple of exciting pennant races down the road.

The Central League is looking likely to be a three-horse race, while five of the six teams in the Pacific League are still in the running to be playoff contenders.

The defending Japan Series champion Yomiuri Giants busted out of the gate looking very much like the team to beat again in the CL. However, the hard-charging Hanshin Tigers have gotten to within a half-game of the league leaders at the All-Star break.

Both teams have high-powered offenses that are firing on all cylinders, but the much-ballyhooed Giants pitching staff has gone into meltdown-mode of sorts lately.

Giants manager Tatsunori Hara used seven pitchers as he skippered the CL to a 4-1 victory in Game 1 of the NPB All-Star series on Friday. It probably felt like just another day at the office for the suddenly beleaguered Hara.

"Our starting pitchers have been ineffective recently," Hara was quoted after a recent game at Tokyo Dome. "It's just abnormal that I have to use five or six pitchers each game."

Sixth-year right-hander Shun Tono has emerged as the ace of Hara's staff this year with an impressive 11-2 record and a 2.68 ERA. Lefty Tetsuya Utsumi has seven wins and a semi-respectable 3.69, and Shugo Fujii is 6-3 with an ERA of 4.14, but after that it gets thin. The only other pitcher on the staff with at least five wins is reliever Yuya Kubo (5-1).

Puerto Rican right-hander Dicky Gonzalez won 15 games last season, but he is just 3-8 in 2010 with a 5.48 ERA. Dominican Wirfin Obispo, who went 6-1 in 14 starts last season and posted a 2.45 ERA, seems to have taken a few steps back this year, with one win in four starts to go along with his 5.46 ERA.

Help may be on the way, however. American right-hander Seth Greisinger, a two-time CL wins leader, is rehabbing his pitching elbow down on the farm after offseason surgery. On Sunday he threw 75 pitches to 20 hitters in a simulated game at the Giants' minor-league facility. Things went well and he could be back with the big club in the next week or two.

"My mechanics feel good, my control feels good, my velocity was OK," said Greisinger. "I just need to work on my endurance, get the velocity up a bit, work a little on the curveball, but other than that everything is on schedule."

One team whose pitching has been carrying them of late is the Chunichi Dragons, who entered the midseason break three games behind Yomiuri and fresh off a 50-inning scoreless streak that encompassed five-plus games and included complete-game shutouts by Chen Wei-yin, Kenichi Nakata and Daisuke Yamai.

Offensively, reigning two-time CL MVP Alex Ramirez is having another banner year, leading the league in both home runs (32) and RBIs (81). The veteran Giants outfielder is being chased in the home-run race by teammate Shinnosuke Abe and Hanshin slugger Craig Brazell, who both have 30. Any or all of these three have a legitimate shot at breaking the NPB single-season HR record of 55, originally set in 1964 by Sadaharu Oh and more recently equaled by both Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera.

In the Pacific League, the Seibu Lions hold a half-game lead over the Softbank Hawks at the top of the standings and are two games up on the Lotte Marines, while the Nippon-Ham Fighters and Orix Buffaloes are both within 6.5 games of the leaders.

Only the Rakuten Eagles, currently 10 games out of first place, look likely to miss out on the postseason, but if they get hot in the second half--like they did last year--who knows?

With Seibu slugger Takeya Nakamura off the roster with an elbow injury, the club recently brought back power-hitter Jose Fernandez to play third base. Fernandez, who has played for four PL clubs over the past seven seasons--including the Leos back in 2004-05--was putting up some big numbers in Mexico after being released by Orix after last season.

So, no matter which league you follow, baseball fans on this side of the Pacific could be in for a treat this September.

"It will be fun toward the end (of the season) since it will definitely mean something," said Tigers slugger Brazell, whose eighth-inning homer gave the CL a 5-5 tie in Game 2 of the All-Star series Saturday in Niigata. "Every game means something, but I think toward the end it could be close and it could all come down to the wire."


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