Considering their relative records and places in the regular-season standings, the Chiba Lotte Marines should have been overmatched against the Chunichi Dragons.
That the third-place Marines overcame all the handicaps put in their way to reach the Japan Series was precedent-setting. Their victory sent a clear and obvious message: Winning four of seven is a different test from a 144-game regular season. The Marines proved more than ready for the challenge against the Central League champions.
"The baseball that worked for us in the CL was lacking something at this stage," said Dragons manager Hiromitsu Ochiai after his club's 12-inning, 8-7 defeat in Game 7.
"We have been a successful team for a number of seasons. But I never got the feeling our opponents were impressed [by our strength].
"Our players performed well, but it didn't translate into victories."
What got lost in translation was the Dragons' starting pitching.
Although Chen Wei-yin (1-0) threw seven innings to win Game 2, and went six in the 15-inning marathon that Game 6 evolved into, no other Dragons starter got past five.
Marines starters allowed 20 runs, 17 earned, in 32 innings. But 5.62 runs allowed per nine innings pales in comparison to the 7.10 surrendered by their rivals from Nagoya.
The Marines outhit the Dragons .281 to .257, a difference built on a .447 batting average against the four Dragons starters not from Taiwan.
Once the bullpens got involved, things evened out.
This, too, was something one would not have predicted from the teams' regular season performance. The Dragons bullpen posted a 3.29 ERA during the regular-season, and shaved more than a run off that in the Series. Marines relievers had a 4.11 regular season ERA, but cut that to 2.41 against the Dragons.
The key here was the Lotte trio of Yasuhiko Yabuta, Tatsuya Uchi and Yoshihiro Ito. Although they normally don't give up a lot of hits, they walk lots of batters and give up lots of home runs.
In the Series, however, they combined to walked six batters in nearly 20 innings, while striking out 25 and allowing no homers and just one run.
Uchi, who struck out 13 in eight scoreless innings over four games, kept the Dragons from making solid contact on his cutter. When they adjusted, catcher Tomoya Satozaki called more often for Uchi's fastball and breaking pitch. Uchi struck out seven in Game 7, and collected one of the three Valuable Player Awards on offer.
While the Marines' pitchers stepped up in the same way they had during their long road march through the Pacific League Climax Series, the batters just seemed to have better plans at the plate than the Dragons.
This shouldn't have come as a big surprise considering Lotte's ability to score runs during the regular season.
In the Series, Marines batters wailed on first pitches, going 14-for-31. With runners in scoring position, they batted .325 compared to the Dragons' .274 figure.
Although the Marines infamously bunted into two Game 6 double plays, they still advanced 12 runners via the sacrifice, which they capitalized on magnificently.
Chunichi's fielding was slightly better. Center fielder Yohei Oshima's game-saving catch in Game 6 was the defensive play of the Series, and shortstop Masahiro Araki also provided fireworks in the field.
The Marines' defense, on the other hand, suffered noticeable meltdowns, one instigated by second baseman Tadahito Iguchi and another by reliever Shingo Ono.
The Dragons' superior fielding kept the Series from ending in six games, but it couldn't make up for the Marines staying one step ahead in the crucial clash between pitcher and batter.
The Marines proved they could execute against the CL champs. Had they been daunted by an opponents' record and reputation, that wouldn't have happened.
Manager Norifumi Nishimura's corps had already shown their lack of fear in two straight Climax Series stages on the road against the Saitama Seibu Lions and the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.
After that experience, it would have been a surprise if the Marines had simply surrendered in the Series.
Free agency period opens
Japan's offseason officially began on Monday, when players with nine years service were eligible to file for international free agency, and those with seven able to change teams within Japan.
In total, 95 players are eligible to file.
Lotte closer Hiroyuki Kobayashi has said he wants to move to the major leagues.
Seibu catcher Toru Hosokawa and the Yokohama duo of former batting champ Seiichi Uchikawa and former home run champ Shuichi Murata are expected to exercise their option to test the domestic market.