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Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009

Uncertainty surrounds first-stage teams in Pa. League Climax Series


Staff writer

Established in 2004, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles may be making their maiden voyage into the postseason but manager Katsuya Nomura's club has the pieces for a successful run.

News photo
Primed for a showdown: Toshiya Sugiuchi, one of Japanese baseball's top pitchers, is expected to lead the charge for the Hawks in the first stage of the Climax Series. KYODO PHOTO

Pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka are the stars on the mound, while Takeshi Yamasaki and Fernando Seguignol are capable of making noise at the plate.

The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks have been here before but are stumbling into the playoffs. Pitcher Toshiya Sugiuchi is a clear-cut star but the supporting cast is thin. Combined with a shaky offense, the Hawks may face an uphill battle to knock off the upstart Eagles.

Here are five questions ahead of the series:

What kind of shape is the Hawks offense in?

Softbank won its season finale but may be in the worst shape of the NPB's six playoff teams. The Hawks will take a big hit at the plate with Nobuhiko Matsunaka sidelined due to an injury. The veteran slugger batted .279 and hit 23 homers this season.

Hidenori Tanoue led the team with 26 home runs, but a .251 batting average shows there isn't much more there. Leaving Jose Ortiz (.282 with 20 homers, 74 RBIs and a .496 slugging percentage) as Softbank's main offensive threat.

Of particular importance will be getting more out of Yuichi Honda (.262, one home run, 41 RBIs and .320 on-base percentage) and Munenori Kawasaki (.259, four homers, 34 RBIs and .325 OBP) at the top of the order.

Will controversy distract the Eagles?

Nomura has already been given his walking papers, against his will, and the press in Sendai is busy detailing the saga.

Also brewing is the fallout of Nomura deactivating Todd Linden, after a perceived slight by the midseason pickup.

Dismissing Linden leaves the Eagles without one of their top hitters — Linden batted .292 with 12 home runs and 37 RBIs in 73 games — for the entire first stage of the Climax Series and at least the first game of the second stage should they reach that point.

How these things affect the team remains to be seen, but controversy is rarely a good thing heading into a playoff series. Especially at a time when the franchise should be busy celebrating its first postseason trip.

Can pitching carry the Eagles.

Absolutely. Rakuten has two of the top pitchers in the league in Tanaka (15-6 2.33 ERA) and Iwakuma (13-6, 3.25), who are a combined 4-1 against the Hawks.

They've also done well within the friendly confines of Kleenex Stadium, combining to go 16-6 in Sendai.

The recent emergence of Satoshi Nagai on the mound could also give the Eagles a boost.

In his third season, Nagai went 13-7 with a 3.42 ERA in 2009 and was 5-1 against Softbank. He's won four of his last five starts, including a complete game victory over the Hawks on Sept 30.

Iwakuma is expected to get the start in the opener with Tanaka going in Game 2 and Nagai in a possible Game 3.

Who carries the load for the Hawks?

Because of the strength of the Eagles' starters, the pressure will likely be on probable Game 1 starter Sugiuchi.

A former PL MVP and Sawamura Award winner, the left-hander may be the best pitcher in the series. Sugiuchi is 15-5 this season with a 2.36 ERA. Sugiuchi led Japanese baseball with 204 strikeouts and finished with a 9.61 strikeouts per nine innings ratio.

Besides probable Game 2 starter D.J. Houlton, Softbank doesn't have another starter with an ERA under 4.00.

So the pressure will be on Sugiuchi to get the Hawks off to a good start.

How much of a factor is Rakuten's bullpen?

The Eagles have had bullpen issues for the better part of the past two seasons and 2009 was no different. Shinichiro Koyama, who had a 2.97 ERA in 63 2/3 innings, has been among the top weapons out of the pen, but Kanehisa Arime (5.06 ERA, team-high 20 holds in 54 appearances) and Kenta Satake (5.12, 10 holds in 34 appearances) come with baggage and run-yielding tendencies.

That makes it important for the Rakuten batters to have a good night and do their part to help put Softbank away early.



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