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Rob Smaal

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Different paths lead to Japan Series

by Rob Smaal (Oct 30, 2010)

The 2010 Japan Series is shaping up to be somewhat of a David-vs-Goliath battle.

In the role of Goliath you have the pitching-rich Central League champion Chunichi Dragons, who are making their fourth appearance in the Japan Series under mercurial manager Hiromitsu Ochiai.

Across the diamond are the upstart Chiba Lotte Marines. They are led by first-year skipper Norifumi Nishimura, who took over a team is disarray after the departure of popular manager Bobby Valentine this past offseason and brought a sense of calm, stability and order to the organization.

As a player, Dragons manager Ochiai was a master with the bat. Before there was an Ichiro in the Pacific League, there was an Ochiai. He won five PL batting titles, three Triple Crowns (led the league in average, home runs and RBIs), and five home-run titles over his illustrious playing career, much of it spent with the Lotte Orions, the forerunners of today's Marines.

As a manager, the stone-faced Ochiai has been no slouch either. Since taking the reins of the Dragons in 2004, Ochiai's teams lost to the Seibu Lions in seven games in the '04 Japan Series, fell in five to the Nippon-Ham Fighters in 2006, beat the Fighters in five the following year, and now face Lotte for NPB bragging rights this season.

Like a well-oiled machine, the Dragons rolled to their third CL pennant under Ochiai this year, but it was no walk in the ballpark--just one game separated the top three teams in the league when the dust settled after the regular season.

With a first-round bye and plenty of rest before their playoff run started, Ochiai was able to get his pitching rotation in order as his club ousted the Yomiuri Giants four games to one in the second round (they were given a 1-0 lead heading into that series).

Taiwanese left-hander Chen Wei-yin will likely get the Game 1 start for Chunichi in the Japan Series, just as he did in the Stage 2 Climax Series opener when he threw six and two-thirds scoreless innings in a 5-0 victory over the Giants.

Chen was a 13-game winner this season and his 2.87 ERA was among the league leaders once again, but not quite as impressive as the CL-leading 1.54 he posted in 2009.

Fresh-faced reliever Takuya Asao had a coming-out season in 2010 for the Dragons. The fourth-year righty, who just turned 26, won 12 games out of the bullpen and racked up 47 holds with a 1.68 ERA. Ochiai rewarded Asao for his stellar season by bringing him in to close out a game against the Giants in Stage 2.

On offense, veteran Kazuhiro Wada showed that he can still be a big-game player when he came through with the series-clinching RBI in the bottom of the ninth against Yomiuri in Stage 2. It shouldn't come as a surprise, however, as Wada hit .339 with 37 homers and 93 RBIs in the regular season.

While Chunichi powered through to the promised land, the Marines took a rather scenic and winding route. They barely made the postseason at all, clinching the third playoff spot in their final game of the season. From there, it was off to Seibu for two tense 11-inning nail-biting victories over the favored Lions.

That earned the men from Chiba a trip down to Fukuoka, where they fell behind three games to one to the pennant-winning Softbank Hawks (who also were given a 1-0 lead going in) before battling back to take the series 4-3.

The playoff hero for the Marines this year has been left-handed starter Yoshihisa Naruse, Chen's likely opponent in Game 1 on Saturday. Naruse has been lights out this postseason for Nishimura's club, outdueling Seibu ace Hideaki Wakui in Game 1 of the first stage before outpitching Hawks ace Toshiya Sugiuchi twice in Stage 2.

In the batter's box, the Marines have gotten some key contributions from a couple of wily veterans this postseason--catcher Tomoya Satozaki and second-baseman Tadahito Iguchi--as well as some clutch hits from rookie Ikuhiro Kiyota. Leadoff-hitter Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who led the PL with a .346 average this season and set a club record with 206 hits, was held to a .192 average (5-for-26) by the Hawks but he could go off at any time.

The Dragons and Marines split the interleague series 2-2 in 2010. The Marines last won the Japan Series in 2005 under Valentine, sweeping the Hanshin Tigers in four straight while outscoring them 33-4.

Chunichi hosts Games 1 and 2 at Nagoya Dome on Saturday and Sunday. The next three games will be played at Chiba Marine Stadium on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Games 6 and 7, if necessary, are back in Nagoya on Nov. 6 and 7.

All games will be played at night, starting between 6:10 and 6:30 pm.


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