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Saturday, Oct. 16, 2010

Giants-Tigers series looks like a tossup


Staff writer

OSAKA — The Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers have the fiercest rivalry in all of Japan. Their storied feud gets taken to a new level this year as they meet for the first time in the postseason.

News photo
Strong campaign: Hanshin's Yasutomo Kubo won 14 games for the Tigers during the regular season. He will likely see action in the first stage of the Climax Series against the Yomiuri Giants, which begins on Saturday. KYODO PHOTO

The Tigers face their hated rivals in the hopes that it's the start of the journey to their first Japan Series title since 1985.

Defending champion Yomiuri is looking for a third consecutive Climax Series crown, ready to erase the memory of a disappointing tumble to third in the Central League standings.

The teams met 24 times in the regular season with each winning 12 games. They'll potentially meet three times in the postseason, where one will move on to the final stage and the other begins the offseason.

Here are five questions ahead of the first stage of the CL Climax Series:

Does the venue matter?

Getting this series at home could be a huge boost for Hanshin. Koshien Stadium may take some of the bite off a Giants team built to slug away in the cozy confines of Tokyo Dome.

The Tigers can also keep their normal routine of preparation and will be playing in front of their raucous fans.

The downside is that while the Yomiuri hitters thrive at the Big Egg, Koshien may actually be the better option for the Giants' pitchers.

What is the Giants' biggest worry?

Yomiuri's pitching has been falling apart recently and the most troubling aspect of that has to be in the bullpen. Closer Marc Kroon and the other relievers have slumped in recent weeks, failing to close out teams and giving up leads late.

Manager Tatsunori Hara is showing an unusually short leash with his relievers, a move that could wreck their confidence and throw off their rhythm. The last thing Yomiuri's younger arms need before entering a pressure packed situation with over 40,000 screaming Hanshin fans.

The Giants have enough firepower to overcome an early deficit, but if the opposition is able to push across runs in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, that may be too much.

Can Hanshin rely on its pitchers?

Hanshin finished with a 4.05 team ERA, higher than every CL team except the Hiroshima Carp and Yokohama BayStars. More troubling is that the Tigers were at their worst against the Giants, ringing up a 4.97 ERA in 12 games.

The positive is probable Game 1 starter Atsushi Nomi was 3-0 with a 2.96 ERA in five starts against Yomiuri. The left-hander made 12 appearances this season and finishing 8-0 with a 2.90 ERA overall.

Hanshin also has a 14-game winner in Yasutomo Kubo, 11-game winner Jason Standridge and wily veteran Tsuyoshi Shimoyangi to choose from as starters the rest of the way.

Can the Giants fix their problems on the mound?

Pitching has been the story of the second half of the Giants' season for all the wrong reasons. Their starters struggled to win games and lately their bullpen has struggled to close them out.

Their top hurler Shun Tono (13-8) went 11-2 through his first 15 starts and 2-6 over his final 12. Dicky Gonzalez has struggled to a 5-13 record and 5.29 ERA, Seth Greisinger has made six appearances and is working his way back from a elbow injury and Tetsuya Utsumi started strong but finished 11-8 with a 4.38 ERA.

Hideki Asai was acquired via trade with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles during the season and has been a breath of fresh air, going 4-1 with a 2.01 ERA since joining the team on July 26.

Offense masked a lot of Yomiuri's pitching woes, so the pressure may be on the hitters to prop up the staff.

The good news is that against the Tigers, Tono was 2-0 with a 2.11 ERA in four starts. Utsumi was 3-1 in five starts, but also had a 5.47 ERA against Hanshin.

How do the offenses stack up?

The Giants have a lineup to be feared starting at the top with leadoff hitter Hayato Sakamoto, who hit 31 homers and drove in 85 runs. Though manager Tatsunori Hara has shuffled the deck a bit recently, inserting capable rookie Hisayoshi Chono in the leadoff position.

No matter where Sakamoto ends up, the Yomiuri lineup is scary. There aren't many places to hide, they've got home run power at every spot except the two-hole and the eight and nine spots, and more big hitters on the bench.

The Tigers are a more consistent bunch but can score with anybody. Takashi Toritani is almost as dangerous as Sakamoto at the leadoff spot, Keiichi Hirano and Matt Murton are hit machines and Takahiro Arai, Craig Brazell and Kenji Johjima make life hard later in the order.



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