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HARD DRIVES: For starters, Lions able to bypass bullpen

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HARD DRIVES: For starters, Lions able to bypass bullpen

by John E. Gibson (Nov 12, 2008)

The bullpen was one area in which the Yomiuri Giants held a clear advantage going into the Japan Series, but Saitama Seibu Lions skipper Hisanobu Watanabe found a way to get the relief he needed.

When the Series went into the final weekend, Watanabe turned his back on conventional wisdom and hopped on the hunch-wagon. He turned his starters into finishers.

That keyed Seibu's comeback from the brink of elimination for two road wins that left Yomiuri with Big Egg on its face.

But it was by no means smooth.

At the start, the rookie skipper went by the book. In Game 2, he gave his bullpen a chance, parading his top relievers out from the sixth inning on with a one-run lead.

But Koji Onuma--one of his most effective arms down the stretch--surrendered the tying run in his only inning of work, and Shinya Okamoto blew the game in the ninth, serving up a walk-off longball to Alex Ramirez.

Watanabe even admitted, after the Series shifted to Seibu Dome, that he simply wanted his pen to minimize damage.

Turns out he was firing a warning shot, letting everyone know just how low his confidence was in his relief corps.

The Lions scratched out a run in Game 3 before getting a three-run bomb in the sixth inning from cleanup man Takeya Nakamura to cut a 5-0 deficit to just a run.

Watanabe, though, left flyball pitcher Chikara Onodera--a righty--on the mound to face last year's Central League MVP Michihiro Ogasawara. Result: the left-handed bopper popped a solo shot that increased visiting Yomiuri's lead to two runs in an eventual 6-4 win over the Lions.

When asked why he didn't go to left-hander Tomoki Hoshino to face the power-hitting Ogasawara, his answer was puzzling to say the least.

"He'd faced him the other day." Yeah, Hoshino hit Ogasawara on the left wrist in Game 2. Perhaps Watanabe figured Ogasawara would hit the ball too hard.

We saw signs that Watanabe had given up on his bullpen in Game 4. Starter Takayuki Kishi, a 23-year-old who took his lumps in the second stage of the Pacific League Climax Series, looked happy on the hill while tossing seven scoreless innings. But Watanabe seemed determined to let him throw until he gave up something--a five-run lead allowed him the luxury to wait and see.

The outcome was an amazing 147-pitch shutout.

Obviously, with Kishi pegged as the Game 4 starter, expectations for the second-year righty weren't all that high. But when the Lions desperately needed relief three days later in Game 6, Kishi was the man the skipper turned to. And he turned the Series around with an unprecedented MVP and record performance.

Kishi, in his first pro relief stint, put the Lions on the path to success, tossing 5-2/3 more scoreless innings with 91 more pitches. He dropped more jaws pitching out of trouble in the ninth with closer Alex Graman ready to go.

In the decisive Game 7, Watanabe stuck to his new plan when starter Fumiya Nishiguchi staggered through the first two innings to put the Lions down 2-0. He sent Game 3 starter Kazuhisa Ishii to the mound and two perfect frames.

He then called on Game 5 loser Hideaki Wakui for a pair of innings, and the ace kept the perfect string going. Still trailing, the skipper went to his rested and raring-to-go pen and got a 1-2-3 inning from Hoshino.

After getting the lead, Graman--who shook off being passed over the previous day--fired two perfect innings and closed out the club's 13th Series title as the Lions retired 24 consecutive Giants.

That's where the Giants fell short. They looked poised to win the franchise's 21st Series title, with skipper Tatsunori Hara freely dipping into a bullpen that had developed into one of Japan's best.

But overuse might have contributed to fatigue later in the Series, and he had no one--like last year's team saves leader Koji Uehara--ready to step in to save the failing arms.

Uehara was apparently unavailable, Game 4 starter Seth Greisinger said before the game that he wasn't throwing, while closer Marc Kroon is a self-professed hater of non-save situations.

In the end, Seibu's willing-to-throw starters turned a weakness into a strength.

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