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A season like no other: Teams try to get Japan back to normal in year of challenges

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A season like no other: Teams try to get Japan back to normal in year of challenges

by Jim Allen (Apr 9, 2011)

The season is finally here, in a form no one would have expected. But this has been a spring like no other.

On March 11, two weeks before the season was originally set to open, Japan was transformed by the megaquake and tsunami that smashed the Tohoku region.

For a month, baseball has been on the back burner as fans, players and teams sought ways to contribute. At every opportunity, players have been donating goods, contributing to relief and taking donations in front of stations and ballparks.

Baseball promises a dose of the normal in a world turned upside down, but the season that starts Tuesday could be Japan's most innovative since the Central and Pacific leagues opened for business in 1950 and roamed the nation with a dearth of suitable venues.

Although the quake damaged only two stadiums (both in the PL), the resulting power shortages led the government to request no night games be played in the Kanto and Tohoku regions for the time being.

This has sent the six affected teams scrambling to reset schedules. The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, whose home park in Sendai was hardest hit by the earthquake, are not scheduled to play there until April 29.

Teams have committed to playing their full 144-game schedules, and have pushed the start of the postseason back to Oct. 29 to accommodate the backlog of March and April postponements. For the first time, both league's playoffs will be held at the same time, with a single off day replacing the long breaks between first and second stages.

Through it all, games will played and pennants won. Yet, because of the chaos, this could be Nippon Pro Baseball's most interesting season ever.

In a baseball culture that values extreme preparation and calculation, and where practice can take precedence over games, a glut of day games and packed schedules may push managers to adapt and give us a season like none we've ever seen. A new ball, too, will contribute to fewer home runs and give teams with speed an extra edge.

Here is our rundown of the 12 teams as they head into Opening Day.

Central League

Yomiuri Giants

Manager Tatsunori Hara uses his roster as well as any manager in Japan.

The Giants have both youth and experience. No player in Japan has more upside to his future than 22-year-old shortstop Hayato Sakamoto.

Infielder Michihiro Ogasawara and outfielder Alex Ramirez are past their primes but still producing and remarkably dependable.

On the downside, a preseason injury to super catcher Shinnosuke Abe, 32, who is coming off a career year could slow the club at the start.

Pitching and defense cost the Giants a pennant last season--the team made 100 errors for the first time since 1964. The team with the longest active streak of sub-100 error seasons is now the Yokohama BayStars, who last hit triple digits in 1967.

Yomiuri has added arms but cut reliever Marc Kroon. Fifth-year lefty Tetsuya Yamaguchi will likely be the closer. A strong season from either Seth Greisinger or Dicky Gonzalez would be a big help. Greisinger was dominant in '07 and '08, Gonzalez in '09, neither in '10. Rookie Hirokazu Sawamura could make an impact. Jonathan Albaladejo adds bullpen depth and might still close.

Rusty Ryal becomes the fourth foreign player in four seasons to be earmarked for second base.

Chunichi Dragons

Manager Hiromitsu Ochiai has finished as low as third once in his seven seasons, but has never won back-to-back pennants. Nearly every season, he'll take an unknown minor league pitcher and get 50 to 100 quality innings from him in the rotation.

Every year, the club's ERA is deflated by Nagoya Dome. Last year, Chunichi's staff was the best in Japan by a wide margin. The bullpen is deep and effective. Set-up man Takuya Asao won 12 games and set a Japan record with 47 holds.

At Nagoya Dome, the Dragons are used to playing without power. This year's less-lively ball will force the rest of NPB to play a game Chunichi has long mastered.

Kazuhiro Wada, the CL's 2010 MVP, is 38, and coming off two of his best seasons. How much can he bring to the table this year?

Hanshin Tigers

Manager Akinobu Mayumi's low-key approach seems to have paid off. The Tigers led both leagues with 740 runs last season as shortstop Takashi Toritani, third baseman Takahiro Arai, first baseman Craig Brazell and second baseman Keiichi Hirano all had career years.

However, the bulk of the Tigers' talent is over 30. Hanshin had just two starters reach double digits in wins, Yasutomo Kubo (14-5) and Jason Standridge (11-5). Atsushi Nomi spent much of the season injured but was 8-0 in 12 outings after returning to action.

The Tigers bolstered their bullpen by signing free agent Marines closer Hiroyuki Kobayashi.

Tokyo Yakult Swallows

Junji Ogawa benefitted from being outgoing skipper Shigeru Takada's replacement as the team rebounded and played .621 ball after May 26.

Center fielder Norichika Aoki, 29, is an established MVP candidate, and right-hander Yoshinori Sato, 21, could quickly develop into one of the CL's best pitchers on a team that already has a championship-caliber pitching staff and defense. First baseman Josh Whitesell, 29, was an excellent contributor after being acquired in June. The pitching is deep but not overpowering.

Outfielder Wladimir Balentien, 26, is a low-average, power hitter with a little speed.

Hiroshima Carp

Manager Kenjiro Nomura suffered through a horrible first season as Hiroshima's pitching and defense went down the tubes. Carp pitchers walked 450, while striking out a Japan-low 884.

Sawamura Award-winning right-hander Kenta Maeda, 22, went 15-8 with a 2.21 ERA. Outfielder Jun Hirose, 32, produced (.374 OBP, 32 doubles and 12 homers) in his first season as a regular. Shortstop Eishin Soyogi, 30, got on track, batting a career-high .306 and playing every day after two years of part-time play.

After getting nearly zero production from foreign hitters in 2009, the Carp signed former Arizona Diamondbacks third baseman Chad Tracy, who brings a balanced offensive game.

Yokohama BayStars

Manager Takao Obana has promised to be more communicative. It couldn't hurt.

Two-time home run king Shuichi Murata passed on free agency. First baseman Brett Harper was a quality midseason pickup. Closer Shun Yamaguchi, 23, saved 30 games last year.

Opposing batters hit .291 against with 176 home runs against the BayStars, who allowed 743 runs: all highs in Japan. Offensively, they had the lowest team average and scored the fewest runs in NPB.

Charismatic outfielder Hichori Morimoto, 30, moves over from Hokkaido Nippon. He'll be a plus if he hits for average for the first time since 2007. Veteran Eagles shortstop Naoto Watanabe bolsters an already-solid middle infield.

Pacific League

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks

Manager Koji Akiyama's club won its first PL pennant since 2003 by two winning percentage points. The Hawks, however, lost the final stage of the playoffs for the fourth time in as many tries.

SoftBank is the most balanced team in Japan: a dependable defense, a quality pitching staff, a very good offense and excellent team speed. The Hawks scored the second most runs in the PL, but still added offensive dynamo Seiichi Uchikawa and potent slugger Alex Cabrera.

The biggest need, defense behind the plate, was addressed by free agent signing Toru Hosokawa.

The Hawks' weakness was the strike zone. The team walked a Japan-low 360 times and its .323 on-base percentage was only better than Yokohama's. Hawks pitchers issued a Japan-high 488 walks.

Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters

Manager Masataka Nashida's Fighters live on their defense. They led the PL with a 3.52 ERA--Yu Darvish hasn't had an ERA over 1.90 since he was 19.

Righty starter Masaru Takeda led the team with 14 wins, import Bobby Keppel matched Darvish with 12 wins and rookie of the year Ryo Sakakibara went 10-1 out of the bullpen.

Center fielder Yoshio Itoi, second baseman Kensuke Tanaka and third baseman Eiichi Koyano provide the bulk of the offense now that injuries have hit right fielder Atsunori Inaba, 38.

Rookie right-hander Yuki Saito gives the team another box office star and perhaps a quality starter.

Saitama Seibu Lions

Manager Hisanobu Watanabe's Lions are deep. Despite a rash of injuries, the Lions plowed on, falling just short of the PL pennant, while hitting a league-high 150 homers.

They'll need a full season from two-time homer king Takeya Nakamura (25 homers in just 85 games in 2011. G.G. Sato, 32, appears on track for a comeback, giving the Lions more hope of catching the Hawks.

Seibu's 4.19 ERA and their opponents' 131 homers were both high marks in the PL. First-round draft pick Tatsuya Oishi, a hard-thrower out of Waseda, figures to make an impact, either starting or relieving

Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles

Manager Senichi Hoshino will hope to repeat his past record of winning a pennant with every club he's managed. His club will easily be the sentimental favorite this season.

Rakuten is a veteran club, but three young players have bright futures: center fielder Ryo Hijirisawa, catcher Motohiro Shima and big right-hander Masahiro Tanaka.

The Eagles picked up former big league infielders Kazuo Matsui and Akinori Iwamura. Hisashi Iwakuma is back after being posted but failing to sign with the Oakland Athletics.

Chiba Lotte Marines

Manager Norifumi Nishimura's team got smoking hot at the right time last season. The Marines snuck into the playoffs and won it all.

The pitching was mediocre (4.10 ERA), but a tremendous offensive effort (PL-high 708 runs) and late-season bullpen heroics made the difference. The club has lost shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka to the majors after his MVP-caliber season and closer Hiroyuki Kobayashi to free agency.

Speed burner Takashi Ogino is back after missing much of his rookie season with a knee injury. He moves from center field to shortstop, where he played at Kwansei Gakuin University.

Orix Buffaloes

Manager Akinobu Okada's Buffaloes were second in the league with 146 homers. Although the club disposed of slugger Alex Cabrera, 23-year-old PL home run champ Takahiro Okada is a rare talent.

The pitching and defense is good enough if the Buffaloes can score consistently. Toward that end, they have signed first baseman Lee Seung Yeop, who returns to the PL for the first time since 2005.

Orix also landed Asia's major league career wins leader Park Chan Ho, but he was frequently lit up in the preseason.

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