The Yomiuri Giants stormed to the Central League title behind outstanding contributions from the likely MVP and their ace on the mound. Still, they have a hill to climb when it comes to the Chunichi Dragons in the CL Climax Series.
The teams have met 15 times in the postseason since the playoff format was introduced in the CL in 2007, and Yomiuri is 6-8-1 against the Dragons.
Suffice to say, the Giants--who finished the season 43 games above .500--aren't taking the low-scoring, strong-pitching Dragons lightly in the best-of-seven series, which kicks off tonight at 6 p.m. and features all six games (if necessary) at Tokyo Dome.
The Giants enter the second stage with a one-win advantage and are home for all the games because they won the CL title, while the Dragons need four wins to advance.
The Giants were 11-10-3 head-to-head against the Dragons, despite a 10-1/2-game spread in the standings.
"I don't expect any of the games to be easy," Yomiuri's Shinnosuke Abe, the favorite to win the MVP, said at practice at Tokyo Dome on Tuesday.
"I think they're going to be close games, and it doesn't matter if we're on top by one run or more; a win is a win, and our goal is to advance."
Abe, whose sore legs slowed him at the end of the season, is going to start behind the plate, but might also see action at first base.
Meanwhile, the Giants don't have all the cards stacked in their favor. Manager Tatsunori Hara will have to work around lefty Toshiya Sugiuchi being sidelined by discomfort in his pitching shoulder, which likely has him out for the series. But the bullpen has been outstanding and time off since the regular-season finale on Oct. 7 has allowed the team to recover from the usual aches and pains.
"Fortunately, we're pretty healthy and that's a big plus for us," Hara said. "I'm expecting all our pitchers to do what they have done all season."
The Dragons come to town on the heels of a dramatic Game 3 victory on Monday night over the Tokyo Yakult Swallows to advance past the first stage of the CLCS.
Tony Blanco's eighth-inning grand slam lifted host Chunichi past Yakult 4-1, giving it six consecutive appearances in the second stage of the CLCS.
Chunichi, though, will be without Kenichi Nakata, who was deactivated because of shoulder soreness after his Game 1 start vs Yakult, and ace Kazuki Yoshimi, who has a break in his elbow and is gone for the season.
"I'm still giddy about the game [Monday], but when I think about [Game 1], I get depressed," Chunichi skipper Morimichi Takagi quipped about Yomiuri, which led Japan in team ERA (2.16), fewest runs allowed (354) and runs scored (534).
"I don't care what numbers you compare, they are above us in all of them--they can hit, they can run and they play good defense.
"We can't go out and embarrass ourselves," he said. "Even with all the things that aren't in our favor, the thing we can do is go out and battle as hard as we can. And that's what we plan to do."
Takagi admitted the injuries to his pitchers have him scratching his head over starters for the second-stage series.
"We have no wiggle room when it comes to our rotation," Takagi said. "We're having trouble trying to figure out who to start."
The Giants figure to open the series with CL wins leader Tetsuya Utsumi, and D.J. Houlton is the next choice for Game 2.
Hawks, Fighters to battle
The defending Japan Series champion Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks are in a happy place, and not just because they advanced to the second stage of the Pacific League Climax Series.
Wily Mo Pena's two-run double in the fourth inning got SoftBank the lead, and Seiichi Uchikawa's RBI single in the eighth was the difference as the third-seeded Hawks knocked off the second-seeded Saitama Seibu Lions 3-2 in Game 3 on Monday at Seibu Dome to reach the final stage.
That put them in a place where they've enjoyed plenty of success this season.
SoftBank won 13 of 24 games against the PL champion Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters this season, including seven of 10 at Sapporo Dome.
The Hawks open the series, which includes day games on Saturday and Sunday, with Yang Yao-shun on the hill, while PL ERA leader and 14-game winner Mitsuo Yoshikawa gets the ball for the first-place Fighters.
The Hawks will likely roll over their rotation on short rest, starting in Game 2 or 3.