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Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009

Dragons, Swallows prep for playoff tilt


Staff writer

The Chunichi Dragons completed the 2009 season as one of the most complete teams in Japanese baseball. A pair of pitchers with superb ERAs and a lineup that cranked out 605 runs has Dragons fans dreaming of a Japan Series run.

News photo
No fairytale endings: Chunichi's Tony Blanco (left) and Masahiko Morino will play a big role in making sure the Dragons' Japan Series dreams aren't slayed in the first round. KYODO PHOTO

In order to advance to the championship round, the Dragons will have to shake off a suddenly hot Tokyo Yakult Swallows team that has won six straight entering the postseason.

Here are a few questions ahead of the Central League Climax Series' first-stage matchup between the Dragons and Swallows:

Can Yakult score the upset?

Yakult is 13-11 against Chunichi in 2009, but the Dragons have won eight of their last 10 meetings.

The Swallows were awful in August and September, but scraped together wins at the end of the season to sneak into the postseason.

Despite blowing a huge lead in the playoff race, Yakult won the games it absolutely had to have late, which should be a rallying point for manager Shigeru Takada heading into what should be a tough series.

How good are the Dragons' pitchers?

The Dragons feature a solid pitching staff that plays even better at home.

Chen Wei-yin (8-4, 1.57 ERA), who has bounced back after missing time with an injured shoulder, and Kazuki Yoshimi (16-7, 2.00) are the standouts on a talented staff.

Among the other starters Yudai Kawaii was an 11-game winner this season and Kenta Asakura's bloated 4.04 ERA doesn't reflect the quality of his starts at Nagoya Dome (5-2 with a 2.30 ERA in eight games).

In relief, Akifumi Takahashi and Junichi Kawahara are solid but Takuya Asao will be vital. Asao has six saves and 33 holds and should be charged with getting the ball to closer Hitoki Iwase.

Overall, it hasn't been easy to score runs against this bunch (their 508 runs allowed was the second-lowest total in the NPB) and they've been even tougher at home.

Where does the offense come from?

For the Dragons look no further than first baseman Tony Blanco. The Dominican has made Dragons fans forget about departed slugger Tyrone Woods with 39 home runs and 110 RBIs (both league highs) in his first season in Japan.

Leadoff batter Hirokazu Ibata does a good job at getting on base as does 3-hole hitter Masahiko Morino, making facing Blanco in the cleanup spot especially dangerous. But Kazuhiro Wada has put together a good season batting fifth (.302, 29 homers and 87 RBIs), making Blanco hard to avoid.

The Swallows, meanwhile, have to be hoping for a big series from Aaron Guiel. The Canadian has been a dragon-slayer this season, batting .373 with nine home runs and 19 RBIs against Chunichi.

He should feel right at home in Nagoya Dome after batting .344 with three homers in 10 games at the Dragons' home stadium.

Have the Swallows righted the ship?

Yakult nearly blew its chance to reach the postseason with a horrendous 17-37 record from Aug. 1 to Oct. 4. The Swallows followed that by winning four consecutive games that they absolutely had to have in order to reach the postseason.

Pitchers Masanori Ishikawa and Shohei Tateyama can take a lot of the credit, delivering huge performances in three must-win games against the Hanshin Tigers this month.

Norichika Aoki and Guiel have also been dialed in lately, likely making the team feel good about its chances.

What's the key for Yakult?

Getting good outings out of their starters may decide Yakult's fate.

Tateyama and Ishikawa carried the Swallows into the playoffs in October and may be called upon again.

Tateyama went 16-6, tying Yoshimi and Seibu's Hideaki Wakui for the Japanese-baseball lead in wins, with a 3.93 ERA this season. He was 3-1 with a 2.93 ERA against the Dragons.

Tateyama proved his big-game credentials on Oct. 8 in a crucial game against the Hanshin Tigers with a complete-game shutout to put Yakult on the brink of clinching a playoff spot. He's expected to get the ball in the opener.

Ishikawa threw a team-high 198 1/3 innings and posted a 3.54 ERA while going 13-7. Making the 29-year-old a more than capable supporting star to Tateyama.

Like Tateyama, Ishikawa had success against Chunichi this year, going 3-0 with a 3.05 ERA.

Both should play important roles in keeping the Swallows in the series.



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