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Rob Smaal

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On paper, it looks like the year of the Dragons

by Rob Smaal (Oct 20, 2010)

As the well-rested Dragons prepare to host the Giants in Stage 2 of the Central League Climax Series, it could all come down to how well the Yomiuri hitters handle a tough Chunichi pitching staff.

"A lot of it will come down to their pitching," said Giants right-hander Seth Greisinger. "They've got some good pitchers and if their guys are on, it could be a tough series. On the other hand, we've got a good-hitting lineup, and if some of our guys get hot with the bat then we'll be tough to beat."

Dragons skipper Hiromitsu Ochiai does have a deep talent pool of pitchers to dip into.

Taiwanese lefty Chen Wei-yin had another superb season for the Nagoya Nine, winning 13 games while posting a 2.87 ERA with 153 strikeouts. He was among the league leaders in all three of those categories.

Other quality starters for the Dragons include Kazuki Yoshimi, who had 12 wins with a 3.50 ERA and 115 Ks, and Kenichi Nakata (7-4, 2.90 ERA, 105 Ks).

Another starter, Daisuke Yamai, was 7-4 with a 3.75 ERA in 2010. Yamai is no stranger to postseason success. You might remember him from the 2007 Japan Series, when he had a perfect game going through eight innings before Ochiai brought in his closer in the ninth to nail down the title.

That closer, Hitoki Iwase, had a league-best 42 saves this year for the Dragons, but perhaps the most impressive pitcher on their staff this season was relief ace Takuya Asao. Asao finished with a dozen wins out of the bullpen in the regular season and he was credited with 47 holds. The fourth-year right-hander struck out 75 batters in just over 80 innings pitched, posting a 1.68 ERA and a stellar 0.87 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched).

The Giants pitching staff, on the other hand, is much more unsettled. Righty Shun Tono (13-8, 3.27 ERA, 140 strikeouts) and lefty Tetsuya Utsumi (11-8, 4.38 ERA, 121 Ks) are good bets to start the first two games, but after that it's a bit up in the air.

"They just told us (starters) to be ready for anything," said Greisinger, a two-time CL wins leader who was limited to just six start this year after offseason elbow surgery. "It's basically pitching by committee. We're taking the approach that we'll try to win at all costs. We'll pitch whoever we need to to get the win. A guy might start one day and come in in relief the next day."

Giants manager Tatsunori Hara used that system effectively in the Giants' two-game sweep of the Hanshin Tigers in the first stage. Dicky Gonzalez and Greisinger, both starting pitchers, came out of the bullpen in that series and both gave Hara some quality innings.

The back end of the bullpen is also a work in progress for the Giants. After a shaky outing followed by a blown save in two crucial games down the stretch, it appears that Hara has lost confidence in closer Marc Kroon, going instead with Tetsuya Yamaguchi to close out games.

Offensively, the Dragons are led by veteran outfielder Kazuhiro Wada, who hit .339 this year with 37 homers and 93 RBIs. Masahiko Morino was just behind him in the batting race with a .327 average, while Dominican slugger Tony Blanco went deep 32 times.

The Giants, meanwhile, counter with cleanup-hitter Alex Ramirez and Michihiro Ogasawara, who have won the last three CL MVP awards between them. This season, Ramirez led the league in both home runs (49) and RBIs (129) and he looks like a lock to pick up his third straight league MVP. His clutch two-run run single capped a dramatic comeback win for the Giants in Game 2 against the Tigers at Koshien Stadium in Stage 1.

Ogasawara hit .308 with 34 HRs and 90 RBIs this season, catcher Shinnosuke Abe walloped 44 homers and drove in 92, while shortstop Hayato Sakamoto clobbered 31 home runs hitting in the leadoff spot.

The Dragons took the season series from the Giants 15-9 and, more importantly, they went 10-2 against them at Nagoya Dome, site of the entire second-round series.

Chunichi hasn't played a game that counts since Oct. 2, a 3-2 home loss to the Yakult Swallows. However, as league champions they receive an automatic one-game lead heading into the "best-of-seven" Stage 2 series that starts Wednesday.


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