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THE HOT CORNER: Something worth fighting for

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THE HOT CORNER: Something worth fighting for

by Jim Allen (Sep 24, 2009)

Although one pennant race is decided, the season's final weeks promise plenty of drama.

In the Pacific League, the Hawks and the Fighters are slugging it out for the pennant, and the top playoff seed, with the Hawks gunning for their first league title in six seasons and Fighters manager Masataka Nashida's first since 2001 since he led the now-defunct Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes to the Japan Series.

Behind that engaging battle is a two-way race for the final PL playoff spot between the defending Japan Series champs and the new kids on the block. The Saitama Seibu Lions have no shot at a repeat PL pennant but can still come from behind and spoil the 5-year-old Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles' feel-good story by leapfrogging them into third place.

The Central League's real battle, for third place, is also a lot of fun, aesthetics aside.

It's the CL's version of the scene from Cinderella when the ugly step-sisters try to squeeze their feet into the glass slipper: The team that emerges victorious with the league's third playoff spot will be the CL's first playoff team with a losing record and no one's first choice for the ball.

In 2005, the Lions advanced with a 67-69 record and a .493 record, but no CL club has yet had that claim to lame fame. The Hanshin Tigers, Hiroshima Carp and Tokyo Yakult Swallows ended Tuesday afternoon's games within a half-game of each other with the Tigers' 60-68-4 record putting them on the top of the ugly heap.

The Tigers and Carp have been neither overly hot or cold. Hanshin skidded through much of April and May and Hiroshima's fish floundered against the current in the weeks leading up to the All-Star break.

The Swallows, on the other hand, were the surprise of the league until the All-Star break. After playing Road Runner for three months, Shigeru Takada's crew has become Wile E. Coyote.

In many of the Swallows' best efforts, they came close but not close enough. A 3-3 tie at Tokyo Dome on Sept. 4 was symptomatic of the club's misfortunes. One out from sealing a 3-2 win, Michihiro Ogasawara hit the ceiling with a shot that dropped uncaught, allowing the tying run to score. The Swallows lost the next nine, and fell to fifth with the Tigers taking over in third and the Carp fourth.

After the Giants completed a three-game sweep at Jingu on Sunday, a loud crowd of Swallows supporters raised a ruckus outside the team's clubhouse, berating the Birds for their stunning fall from grace and calling for Takada's resignation.

First-year Tigers boss Akinobu Mayumi has been under fire for most of this season, with the Kansai sports papers constantly suggesting he be replaced. It brought back a conversation last autumn, when former Tigers pitcher Kazuhiko Kudo complained about the club's ownership being swayed by the media.

Indeed, when the papers called for Mayumi's head this season, Tigers management scrambled to hold emergency meetings on his future.

The Tigers, who have been among the league's top three in five of the previous six seasons, are big offseason spenders every winter, and their failure to even make the playoffs would be a major letdown to an entire region.

The same cannot be said of the Swallows and Carp. Both clubs have survived despite a steady talent drain. Each club lost its best hitter and pitcher after 2007. The Swallows outscored their opponents last season but finished fourth, while the Carp finished a game under .500 and two games out of third place a year ago. Carp owner Hajime Matsuda, who had announced skipper Marty Brown would need a third-place finish or .500 record to come back for 2009, caved in on the eve of last season's final game, which they lost. Still, the Fish finished with the team's second-best record in 12 years.

This year is no different. They are in the hunt and Brown's job is again on the line.

"It's the same every year," Brown told The Hot Corner by telephone on Tuesday. "It always wears thin. It's always unnerving."

His guys nearly made the playoffs a year ago. Their inclusion this season, even with a lousy sub-.500 record, would be a just reward for their super fans and for Brown's four years of effort to energize a backward organization.

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