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THE HOT CORNER: Japan Series races comes to Climax

by Jim Allen (Oct 21, 2010)

Before the Central League Climax Series began, Giants cleanup hitter Alex Ramirez predicted an unprecedented postseason.

"It's my opinion, but this year you're going to see two third-place teams in the Japan Series," he told The Hot Corner last Friday after practice at Koshien Stadium.

If the Giants, who finished third in the CL, take on the Pacific League's third-place Chiba Lotte Marines in the Japan Series, starting on Oct. 30, it will be the first time neither Series contestant will have won its league.

"Explain to me how a team can be No. 1 in Japan but not a league champion?" the Saitama Seibu Lions Jose Fernandez said recently. "In the States, a team can be a wildcard, but it still has to win the league."

So how did we get where we are?

For 56 years, the Japan Series was a clash of titans, of league champions. That changed in 2007, when the CL went to a playoff system.

That autumn, Chunichi became the first non-pennant-winner to win a Japan Series after finishing second in the CL. The Dragons swept the Hanshin Tigers in the first stage of the CLCS, swept the league champion Giants in the second stage and mauled the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the Japan Series.

The route for the Dragons' roundabout road to victory had been drawn up three years earlier, when the PL began a three-team, two-stage playoff format.

With more big games for teams that had little chance of finishing first, the PL's late-season attendance took off. In the two seasons from 2005, the year teams began announcing approximate attendances, PL crowds after Aug. 31 increased across the board, while CL increases were essentially limited to the top two finishers.

In those two seasons, the bottom four PL clubs saw their late-season crowds jump by an average of 8.5 percent. The bottom four CL clubs dropped 3.7 percent.

While the principle argument for a playoff format was financial, there was also the fact that since adopting their playoffs in 2004, the PL champions had won all three Japan Series by a total of 12 games to four.

The PL champs, fresh off hotly contested playoff games, arrived ready for action against CL clubs that had been sitting around a few weeks getting rusty.

When the CL joined the playoff bandwagon and created the Climax Series with both leagues using identical formats, changes were made. The biggest change was that the Japan Series would no longer be a battle of league champions.

Unwilling to reduce the regular season's significance, the CL insisted league champions be decided as they had been from 1936 to 2003: by awarding the pennant to the team with the season's best record.

The CL also insisted on dropping the automatic one-game advantage the PL had given to its first-place finisher in 2006. The handicap had been introduced after the Hawks won the regular season in 2004 and 2005 only to lose at home in the playoffs.

In 2006, the one-game advantage bit SoftBank in the butt. After advancing to the second stage, the Hawks crashed out of the best-of-five second stage in two games.

Because the CL didn't want a one-game advantage, the 2007 Giants were eliminated in their playoff debut in three games at Tokyo Dome.

Unlike the PL, which watched its regular-season champ crash out twice before acting, one upset was enough for the Climax Series to add a second-stage advantage.

That the Marines were able to overcome that advantage and advance to the Japan Series is an impressive feat. Can the Giants overcome the odds, too?

It's certainly possible. The Giants' squad has been tempered by two tense come-from-behind victories at Koshien, while the Dragons have practiced. Mind you, the Dragons practice at a higher level of intensity than most. The Giants have also lost their last nine games at Nagoya Dome.

Manager Tatsunori Hara's team, which found ways to lose all summer, looked like a different club last weekend. The Giants were not more talented than the Tigers, but they seemed better able to maintain their concentration.

If the Giants succeed in making this the first Japan Series between pennant race also-rans, it won't be a classic clash of the titans or league champs.

It should, however, be good fun.


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