Heading into Stage 2 of the Pacific League Climax Series playoffs, one thing is for sure: Whichever team can hit lefties better has a good chance of advancing.
The pennant-winning Softbank Hawks will host the entire series against the Lotte Marines at Fukuoka Dome, heading into Game 1 on Thursday with a pre-set 1-0 lead in the "best-of-seven" affair to determine the PL representative in the Japan Series.
The Hawks haven't played a meaningful game since wrapping up their 2010 regular-season schedule on Sept. 26, an 8-3 loss to the lowly Rakuten Eagles, while their opponents, the third-place Marines, are riding an emotional high after sweeping aside the Seibu Lions in two straight in Stage 1 in dramatic fashion. (Cue the "rest-vs-rust" debate.)
The Marines' offense this year has been sparked by switch-hitting shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who batted a league-best .346 with 206 hits at the top of the order for first-year Lotte skipper Norifumi Nishimura.
But the old adage in baseball says that good pitching beats good hitting and, that being the case, the Hawks look like favorites going in. They took the season series 15-9 over Lotte, and the men on the mound certainly carried a lot of the load for Koji Akiyama's club this season.
Softbank left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada tied for the league lead in wins in 2010 with 17 and he beat the Marines twice in September, going seven innings each time and whiffing a total of 19 hitters while giving up just three earned runs over those two games.
Hawks manager Akiyama will also roll out another hard-throwing lefty in veteran Toshiya Sugiuchi, who turns 30 later this month. Sugiuchi posted a 16-7 record this year, splitting his last two starts against the boys from Chiba. In his final start of the season, on Sept. 25 at Sapporo Dome, Sugiuchi engaged in a classic pitchers' duel with Nippon-Ham Fighters ace Yu Darvish. Both men went the distance, with Sugiuchi tossing a five-hit shutout as his Hawks prevailed 1-0.
In the Hawks' bullpen, right-hander Brian Falkenborg has had a superb year. The 200-centimeter California native posted a 1.02 ERA and a 0.76 WHIP in 62 innings of relief. He's had some mixed success against the Marines lately: he tossed two hitless innings in Chiba on Sept. 14, but the next time out against them he gave up hits to all three batters he faced.
Closer Takahiro Mahara had 32 saves and a 1.63 ERA this year for the Fukuoka Nine, so there are few, if any, weak spots on this pitching staff.
The Marines' staff was also bolstered by a couple of left-handed starters. Southpaws Yoshihisa Naruse and Bill Murphy won 13 and 12 games, respectively, for the Marines this season. Only two of those wins--both by Murphy--came against the Hawks, however. Neither man was particularly sharp in the Stage 1 games at Seibu--Naruse went seven innings in the opener, allowing two runs on seven hits and four walks, while in Game 2 Murphy lasted just three frames, giving up four runs on four hits and three walks.
Both can thank their catcher Tomoya Satozaki for bailing them out. Satozaki came through in the ninth with game-tying hits in both games before the Marines went on to score a pair of one-run victories in the 11th inning.
Veteran Hiroyuki Kobayashi, a converted starter who seemed to lose his mojo somewhere along the way, had a resurgent year with the Marines as the team's closer. The 32-year-old righty, who is a free agent after this season and has drawn interest from MLB clubs, had 29 saves and posted a 2.21 ERA this season.
Both clubs have a good mix of speed and power in their lineups. Hawks shortstop Munenori Kawasaki compares favorably to the Marines' Nishioka, with a .316 average and 190 hits this year. He also had more stolen bases, 30 compared to 22 for Nishioka.
Toshiaki Imae had a fine season for Lotte, hitting .331, but the Hawks can counter with veteran outfielder Hitoshi Tamura, who hit .324 with 27 homers and 89 RBIs.
Former MLB infielder Tadahito Iguchi had a fine season at the dish for the Marines, driving in 103 runs while hitting .294 and belting 17 home runs, while South Korean first baseman Kim Tae-hyun overcame a rough start to finish off his first year in Japan with 21 homers and 92 RBIs.
The Hawks, meanwhile, have a couple of foreign sluggers in Jose Ortiz and Roberto Petagine who can end a game with one swing of the bat.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year of sorts in Chiba, coming off the countless distractions and in-fighting of 2009 revolving around then-skipper Bobby Valentine's ongoing battles with the front office in his final season as the team's bench boss. Nishimura, however, seems to have restored a sense of harmony to the club, and the players and fans have responded. Satozaki has gone so far as to christen them the "Miracle Marines."
History may be on their side, too--the last time the two teams hooked up in the playoffs in 2005, the underdog Marines knocked off Softbank on their way to a championship season.
But that was then, this is now.
"I'll forget (the bitter memory of five years ago)," said closer Mahara of the Hawks, who last won it all in 2003. "I think they have momentum, but our job is to stop them. We'll be well prepared to play."