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Friday, Oct. 12, 2012

Determined Swallows renew rivalry with playoff-tested Dragons


Staff writer

No matter what changes or how much time passes, it seems like the Chunichi Dragons find a way to make it into the Climax Series.

News photo
Back in action: Leadoff hitter Yohei Oshima and the Chunichi Dragons make preparations Friday, a day before the start of the Central League Climax Series first stage against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. Game 1 will be played at Nagoya Dome. KYODO PHOTO

The Dragons have a new manager and an aging roster, yet here we are talking about them entering another postseason.

Chunichi earned an automatic spot in the final stage in each of the last two seasons by virtue of winning the pennant. The Dragons were dethroned by the Yomiuri Giants this season, meaning they'll have to go through the Tokyo Yakult Swallows if they hope to make it back this season.

Yakult overcame numerous injuries to beat out the Hiroshima Carp for the third-place slot in the CL standings.

The Swallows return to Nagoya almost a full year after being beaten by the Dragons in the final stage last year, though this year the Birds are determined to get the job done.

The Swallows won the season series with a record of 13-8-3. Game 1 of the Climax Series first stage is scheduled for Saturday. Here's five questions ahead of the series:

How does the Chunichi rotation stack up?

Pitching has been the Dragons' calling card for years, and the team is suited for the spacious Nagoya Dome. Even so, Chunichi will have to push forward without injured ace Kazuki Yoshimi, meaning the rest of the staff has to step up.

Kenshin Kawakami (3-1, 2.83) only saw limited action in his first year back from the majors, but probably pitched his way into a Climax Series start after tossing five scoreless innings against the Swallows in a Chunichi win Sept. 29.

Lefty Kenichi Nakata will also get a start, having faced Yakult three times this season and finishing 2-0 with a 1.71 ERA in 21-plus innings. The Dragons can also throw either Soma Yamauchi (10-7, 2.43) or Enyelbert Soto (5-1, 1.85) into the mix as well.

Remember, the CL is scrapping the practice of announcing starters for the postseason, so the Dragons can utilize a bit of secrecy in how they reply their starters.

Still, Chunichi pitchers posted a 3.30 ERA against Yakult this season, so they'll need to improve in order to advance.

Does Chunichi have enough offense?

If the Dragons' pitchers aren't able to hold the Swallows at bay, the onus will be on their lineup to overcome its deficiencies.

That could be a tall order for a team that managed a .253 batting average and 57 runs (to the Swallows' 86) in 24 games against Yakult.

Leadoff man Yohei Oshima hit .310 and stole 30 bases this season, which should serve to put the team's main power hitter, Tony Blanco (24 home runs) in favorable situations.

Even if that's the case, the aging Dragons still will need something from Hirokazu Ibata, Masahiro Araki, Kazuhiro Wada, Motonobu Tanishige and Masahiko Morino.

Scoring runs isn't exactly Dragons' strength, so they may have to hope their pitchers can hold Yakult down.

Who's healthy?

Both squads enter the series with the health of a few key players in question.

Firstly, Chunichi starter Kazuki Yoshimi (13-4 record and 1.75 ERA) and Swallows reliever Tatsuyoshi Masubuchi won't play at all. Yoshimi is a huge loss for the Dragons, though it's worth noting he was just 1-2 with a 4.26 ERA against Yakult during the season.

Dragons infielder Hirokazu Ibata is dealing with an elbow injury, but should be able to compete. The status of Swallows outfielder Lastings Milledge is murkier.

Milledge suffered a shoulder injury Sept. 16 and has been sidelined ever since. He'll be on the roster for the Climax Series, but how much his play will be affected, or how much he plays for that matter is uncertain. Milledge's bat warmed up considerably during the middle of the season, and a return would be a boost to the Swallows' chances in this series and beyond.

Can Balentien deliver?

Wladimir Balentien finished the year with a .272 average and CL-best 31 homers and 81 RBIs, bettering his 2011 totals in all three categories despite playing 34 fewer games.

He erased the memory of last season's sluggish finish and arrives in Nagoya with a second chance to impress in the Climax Series.

The Yakult slugger is a legitimate threat to change the course of a game, particularly if the Swallows can get runners on in front of him.

Balentien lit up the Chunichi this season, batting .345 with six home runs and 17 RBI in 55 at-bats against the defending CL champions. He made the most of his seven appearances at Nagoya Dome, batting .304 with a pair of homers.

In a series that could come down to a few runs here or there, the instant offense Balentien can create makes him a key figure to watch.

What's the bullpen situation?

Chunichi features CL saves leader Hitoki Iwase and reigning league MVP Takuya Asao in a bullpen that posted a 2.81 ERA this year.

Junji Tashima, Daisuke Yamai, Jorge Sosa and lefty Masa Kobayashi help form the crux of a unit that, especially at home, can either protect a lead or keep the Dragons in position to strike late in games.

Iwase led the league with 33 saves, but Yakult's Tony Barnette, who was second with 32, may be the more reliable closer at this point in their careers.

The problem for Yakult is getting through a bullpen that posted a 3.22 ERA, the highest in the CL, to get the ball to Barnette.



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