The time for do or die has come, with the Saitama Seibu Lions and Chiba Lotte Marines fighting for postseason survival starting today at Seibu Dome.
The Lions, who tripped up in the final days of the regular season to hand the Pacific League championship to the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, need to turn things around. The Marines hope to bring the momentum they had on Oct. 1, when their third straight win allowed them to squeeze into the last Climax Series berth.
"We blew it [the pennant]," Lions skipper Hisanobu Watanabe said of a 1-6 stretch that allowed the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks to overtake the Lions and clinch the pennant.
"Everyone has worked hard to reset themselves and get back on track. The question is whether we can get it done on the field starting tomorrow."
Although Watanabe will be without his leadoff man, second baseman Yasuyuki Kataoka, the Lions have otherwise gotten healthy at the right time.
Slugging infielder Takeya Nakamura had surgery during the season and missed 2-1/2 months. In September, as Seibu fought for the pennant, "Okawari-kun" batted .296 with 11 home runs in 20 games.
"Nakamura had surgery early so that he would be ready at this crucial juncture," Watanabe said. "It's the same with [right-hander Takayuki] Kishi and the same with [lefty Kazuhisa] Ishii.
"We're missing Kataoka, but we have plenty of depth."
Marines skipper Toshifumi Nishimura couldn't help but be reminded of Opening Day, when his team took on the Lions in their den.
"This is the same place we opened the season, and the feeling is much the same as the day before Opening Day," Nishimura said. "Of course, it is different, but the feeling is the same.
"The day before Opening Day, I said we needed to fight as one. We are the challengers. [To win] we have to come together and do battle with our opponents."
Game 1 of the best-of-three Climax Series first stage will see Lions ace Hideaki Wakui (14-8) start against Marines southpaw Yoshihisa Naruse (13-11), who said he's learned a thing or two since his last postseason game in 2007.
Eight days after throwing a five-hit shutout in his playoff debut, Naruse was shelled for four runs in 3-2/2 innings in a defeat that prevented the Marines from going to the Japan Series.
"At that time, I tried hard to approach that game as I would any other," Naruse said. "I didn't feel the need to change anything.
"But since then, and particularly this year, I've experienced so much. I think I can surpass what I did at that time [in 2007].
"I feel a great deal of anxiety, but I also know how much fun the postseason can be. I intend to make each pitch count and enjoy the moment."
Asked what he hoped for from his lefty, Nishimura said, "I expect him to pitch a winning game."
The Lions lost their season series with Lotte 13-11, but were 7-5 against the Marines at home.
The winner of their series will take on the Hawks in the best-of-seven second stage at Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome starting on Oct. 14.
Hoshino eyes new uniform
Senichi Hoshino, who is being courted by the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles for their vacant managerial post, said Thursday he is eager to hear what the team has in mind.
"In this world, if an offer comes your way, you have to sit down and talk," he said on TV.
Hoshino, who has managed the Japan Olympic team as well as the Hanshin Tigers and Chunichi Dragons, is currently a senior advisor to the Tigers owner.
"The Tigers are still taking part in the Climax Series, so it's not urgent that I give my answer immediately," he said. "The question is whether I have the fire for it or not."