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Pacific League '11: Anyone can take the flag, but Sendai's Eagles sentimental favorites

by Rob Smaal (Apr 12, 2011)

The Pacific League pennant is, once again, up for grabs.

Parity has been the key word in the PL in recent years, although you can usually expect the Softbank Hawks and Seibu Lions to be in contention come playoff time.

Having said that, it's the Chiba Lotte Marines who are the reigning Japan Series champions.

In 2010, the Hawks edged Seibu by just two percentage points to claim the PL flag. Over the offseason, Hawks ownership buffed up the squad by acquiring two productive free agents: former Yokohama BayStar Seiichi Uchikawa, one of the best hitters in Japan over the past few seasons, and veteran slugger Alex Cabrera, who came over from the Orix Buffaloes.

With the dynamic duo of lefties Tsuyoshi Wada (17 wins in 2010) and Toshiya Sugiuchi (16 wins) at the top of their rotation, it seems unlikely that Softbank will be any easier to beat this year.

In the bullpen, the Hawks also have American right-handed reliever Brian Falkenborg back. Last season, Falkenborg chalked up 39 holds while posting a league-best 1.02 ERA.

In Saitama, the Lions also seem to consistently field a productive team. The Leos prevented All-Star shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima from taking his talents to MLB over the offseason--very much against his will--so he'll want to put up some numbers to entice all the MLB scouts who will be keeping an eye on him this season.

With table-setters Yasuyuki Kataoka and Takumi Kuriyama still in the primes of their careers, and with Nakajima and big-boppers Takeya Nakamura and Jose Fernandez there to drive them in, scoring runs should not be an issue for the Lions, especially if G.G. Sato can rediscover his old form.

Hideaki Wakui, the team's ace, went through a nasty, drawn-out contract squabble with the club over the offseason so it will be interesting to see how he responds this year.

Also, old war horse Brian Sikorski is back in the Seibu bullpen a year after racking up 33 saves for the Lions. This will be the 10th season in Japanese baseball for the 36-year-old Sikorski.

Much of the attention this spring went to fresh-faced rookie pitcher Yuki Saito, who was drafted by the Nippon-Ham Fighters out of Waseda University.

Saito seems like a nice kid, but it's doubtful that he will be one of the top pitchers in the league this season. In fact, he won't even be close to being the top pitcher on his team.

That honor will, once again, go to Yu Darvish, who could find himself heading to the major leagues after this season via the posting process.

Another club that drew plenty of attention over the offseason was the Rakuten Eagles, although much of it was unwanted when the March 11 earthquake damaged their home ballpark in Sendai.

Volatile skipper Senichi Hoshino takes the reins this year, and he has some lofty goals. Luckily for him, he also has some good talent to work with.

After failing to reach a deal with the Oakland A's this offseason, ace Hisashi Iwakuma is back in Sendai for another season. The former 21-game winner and fellow righty Masahiro Tanaka are a formidable 1-2 punch at the top of Hoshino's rotation.

Also added to the club are a couple of veteran infielders who have been languishing in the major leagues for the past few seasons--Kaz Matsui and Akinori Iwamura. Kim Byung-hyun, a former Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander, will make his Japanese baseball debut with the Eagles this year.

After all that the Tohoku region has been through these past few weeks, Hoshino & Co. would no doubt love to give the folks up there a reason to cheer in 2011.

Last season, the Marines seemed to blossom at just the right time under new manager Norifumi Nishimura after the Bobby V circus left town.

Lefty starter Yoshihisa Naruse became almost unhittable in the postseason as the third-placed Marines took out the Lions and Hawks in the playoffs before edging the Chunichi Dragons in the Japan Series.

Naruse is back in Chiba, but reliever Hiroyuki Kobayashi and infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka won't be around this season. Nishioka, a key contributor offensively at the top of the order, is playing for the Minnesota Twins this year--at least he was until he broke his leg in a game last week.

Still, the lineup is sprinkled with quality bats in Tadahito Iguchi, Saburo Omura, Shoitsu Omatsu, Toshiaki Imae, Kazuya Fukuura and Kim Tae-kyun.

If youngsters Takashi Ogino and Ikuhiro Kiyota can pick up where they left off last season, good things could be in store for Chiba again.

The fortunes of the Orix Buffaloes this year could well rest on the muscular shoulders of young power-hitter Takahiro Okada, who led the PL last season with 33 homers. The team lost bruiser Alex Cabrera through free agency, but they will try to replace him with another aging foreign batter, Lee Seung-yeop, a South Korean free agent plucked from the Yomiuri Giants scrap heap.

Another veteran Korean has also joined the Buffs this year. Longtime MLB pitcher Park Chan-ho is with the club, but his best days are likely behind him.


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