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HARD DRIVES: CL race headed for funky finish

by John E. Gibson (Sep 15, 2010)

Admittedly, when Yomiuri moved into first place back on April 11, a lot of Giants fans might have yawned, stretched and figured: "Wake me up for the playoffs."

Many thought the three-peat Central League champs had flicked away the pests and were well on their quest toward a fourth straight crowning ceremony.

And indeed, much of the CL at the time resembled walking roadkill--including the current front-running Chunichi Dragons and the second-place Hanshin Tigers--and there really didn't appear to be any plot-thickening agents to slow the Giants' charge.

Seeing them in third place in September--that wasn't on the radar.

On the other side, Saitama Seibu, which has been stretched to the limits of its talent pool by injuries and ineffectiveness, basically snarled as it fended off all Pacific League challengers. Hard Drives is projecting the Lions kings of that horde with a 3-1/2-game lead and less than two weeks to go, but the CL has presented some intriguing aspects to its pennant race.

The second stage of the CL Climax Series has been at Tokyo Dome all three years since its inception, but the Giants are in danger of having to play on the road in the playoffs for the first time.

"At the end [in the playoffs], everybody has to beat everybody, but the thing is it's a big advantage to finish first," said Yomiuri cleanup man Alex Ramirez before Tuesday's game against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows at Jingu Stadium.

"Of course, it's a big advantage to finish first. And that's our main goal. But if we finish second, we're still going to be at Tokyo Dome for [the first stage of] the Climax Series. Then we go to wherever, if we win. But our main goal here is to finish first. We cannot settle for anything less than that."

The Dragons spent much of the summer settling in at third place, despite being one or two games ahead of the league leader in the win column.

The Dragons have huffed and puffed and blown their way to the most CL victories. But they also had the highest number of losses and only recently, thanks to a 9-1-1 record this month, passed Yomiuri and climbed to within two of Hanshin in the loss column.

The Dragons made up much of the deficit by beating the two other top teams in head-to-head games, including a club-best nine straight against the Giants at Nagoya Dome.

Yomiuri seemed like it was in great shape, with the fewest losses, until its rotation dried up in the summer heat. The Giants went 9-12 in July and 12-14 in August, their well-documented starters unable to cool off the competition.

Stopping short of calling it bland, Hanshin has been neither spectacular nor awful.

There is still a lot of baseball left, and a guaranteed funky finish to a quirky CL race is in store.

The Giants will be hampered in the league title chase with no more games left against the Dragons. The Tigers are in second but have the schedule advantage; before Tuesday's game, Chunichi had 12 games left, Yomiuri 17 and Hanshin 19.

That means when the Dragons close out their season on Oct. 2 at home, most of them will likely be on a couch watching when their title fate is decided.

The Tigers and Giants face each other five more times, all at Koshien. If one team can dominate those meetings, it will likely win the title.

But what we all want to know is which team is playoff buoyant.

Hanshin appears to have the best balance. It is second in the league in both team ERA and first in batting average. The Tigers are in a virtual tie with the Giants in run differential, outscoring opponents by 75, while Yomiuri is plus 82.

The Dragons lead the CL in ERA, almost a full run less than Hanshin at 3.28. They don't score a heck of a lot, but 102 fewer runs allowed than Hanshin is why Chunichi is atop the CL today.

The Tigers have outscored the Giants this season 656-648, but Hanshin's team ERA is higher.

Suffice to say, all three playoff teams are evenly matched. The Dragons are 15-9 vs the Giants and 11-8 against the Tigers. Yomiuri is 10-9 against Hanshin.

In the postseason, expect the team that wins the CL to advance to the Japan Series.


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