A week after wrapping up their regular season, the Yomiuri Giants are back in action tonight at Jingu Stadium to face the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in the Game 1 of the Central League Climax Series' first stage.
The Giants, third in the CL, were 8-12-4 against second-place Yakult in the regular season and 1-4-2 at Jingu, where the entire best-of-three first stage will be held.
"If you finish lower in the standings, you have to play at your opponent's park. That's simply the way it is," Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said Friday before his team worked out at Tokyo Dome.
"We didn't play them particularly well this year. But it's a short knockout series, so that doesn't matter."
The Giants will be without second baseman Daisuke Fujimura, who underwent an emergency appendectomy on Thursday, but are otherwise healthy. That includes Michihiro Ogasawara, who played in just 83 games this year, his fewest since 1998.
A career .313 hitter, Ogasawara finished the regular season batting .242. Still, he batted .311 in August games before he was sidelined by a broken hand on Aug. 23.
"I feel fine now, no pain at all," said the left-handed slugger, who returned for the final three games of the season.
"It actually felt good quickly, but there were daily consultations with the staff for a long time before they would clear me."
The Swallows' 85 homers were second in the CL to the Giants' 108, but that gap could look larger with Ogasawara, who hit just five following six-straight 30-plus seasons, in form along with team leader Alex Ramirez (23) and team captain Shinnosuke Abe (20).
The Giants have three other hitters in double digits in homers: CL batting champ Hisayoshi Chono (17), leadoff man Hayato Sakamoto (16) and veteran outfielder Yoshinobu Takahashi (15 in 256 at-bats).
In contrast, the Swallows had just three players in double digits: league home run king Wladimir Balentien (31), first baseman Kazuhiro Hatakeyama (23) and Josh Whitesell (12).
"In a short series like this, it matters so much if you can shut down their guys who are hitting," said Abe, who will be handling the Giants pitchers from behind the plate.
Lefty Tetsuya Utsumi, 18-5 with a 1.70 ERA and rookie right-hander Hirokazu Sawamura (11-11, 2.03 ERA) are the Giants' 1-2 punch in the rotation. After that it's anyone's guess who will start, although Dicky Gonzalez has made a case for himself this month, retiring 41-of-45 batters he faced.
Gonzalez told The Daily Yomiuri he feels as sharp as in 2009, when he went 15-2. This summer in the minors, he retrieved his sinker from the lost-and-found bin and polished it to perfection.
"I stopped throwing it in 2005 when I had a really bad year," he said. "I wanted another pitch [this year]. I tried that and my changeup. My changeup is not very good, but for some reason, the sinker's been good."
Hara said 25-year-old right-hander Shun Tono (8-11, 3.47 ERA) has also found his groove, giving the skipper more depth than he had for most of the season.
The Swallows' top two are right-hander Shohei Tateyama (11-5, 2.04 ERA) and lefty Masanori Ishikawa (10-9, 2.73 ERA). If the series goes three games, the Giants will likely see Kyohei Muranaka, who went 3-2 against Yomiuri, or fellow lefty Katsuki Akagawa (6-3, 2.03 ERA).
In the Pacific League, the Saitama Seibu Lions will send ace Hideaki Wakui (9-12, 2.93 ERA) at Sapporo Dome this afternoon against Hokkaido Nippon Ham ace Yu Darvish (18-6, 1.44).
Wada takes over Tigers
The Hanshin Tigers introduced Yutaka Wada as their new manager on Friday.
The 49-year-old former Tigers infielder said the club has the makings of a team that can compete for the CL title, and Wada--promoted from batting coach with no managerial experience--can begin putting his signature on the team when autumn camp starts next month.
Wada, who has a three-year deal, replaced the fired Akinobu Mayumi.