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Saturday, Oct. 7, 2006

SPORTS SCOPE

PL playoffs offer many questions


This time last year, a heck of a brew was being whipped up east of Tokyo.

Stephen Ellsesser

It had already given the Chiba Lotte Marines Japan's first interleague championship, and although it left them one down from perennial Pacific League stalwart Softbank in the regular-season standings, the best was yet to come.

PL champions, Japan Series champions, Asia Series champions -- the hits wouldn't stop coming for Bobby Valentine's team last year (especially in the Japan Series, just ask Hanshin). And all because the right blend of pitching, hitting, defense and fan support all got topped off with a secret ingredient.

Last year, it was "Bobby Magic," introduced to the Japanese baseball lexicon and quickly befriended by headline writers on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

But this is another year, and as the PL postseason begins Saturday when the Seibu Lions host the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, that special, final touch that will make 2006 a special vintage for one of the three teams still standing is yet to be determined.

With the Marines out of the postseason, will the Hawks find a way to win a PL title that has eluded them since the institution of the two-stage playoffs?

And what of Seibu?

With Daisuke Matsuzaka on the way to the majors, can the PL's most consistent team win another Japan Series before "The Monster" heads west?

And how about the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, who await the Stage 1 playoffs with a one-game lead for the second stage?

Trey Hillman is rapidly becoming the hottest managerial commodity in Japan since, well, Bobby V. was linked to jobs in the majors last offseason.

Hillman has said that he wishes to stay in Sapporo next season, but the Fighters have yet to give him a new contract.

Meanwhile, three MLB teams have contacted the successful manager, according to media reports.

With the Texas Rangers, a team for which Hillman served as director of player development in 2002, having fired skipper Buck Showalter, might the Texan be going back home?

Not before he makes a serious go of giving his adoptive country a gaijin managerial double by winning the Japan Series this year.

The Fighters are drawing huge crowds, superstar Tsuyoshi Shinjo is going to retire, stalwart Michihiro Ogasawara is probably headed to the Central League via free agency. If any year is going to be the Hammies', this year has that kind of feel.

Nippon Ham won 80 games for the first time in 45 years, and even without Satoru Kanemura winning in double figures.

When Kanemura criticized Hillman in the media, it gave all the pretty aspects of Nippon Ham's planetary alignment a nice parry -- a bit of a burr down the stretch.

Hillman handled the situation with the care of a demolitions team diffusing a bomb, and the organization backed the manager to the hilt, making the Fighters even stronger because the squeaky wheel was swapped out instead of greased.

Pretty isn't easy, as they say.

Of the Fighters' competition, only one subplot is anywhere near as compelling as anything coming out of Hokkaido.

Having been without manager Sadaharu Oh since he had surgery to remove his stomach back in July, Softbank has a chance to focus on that and use it to will it to a PL championship, which it hasn't won since going all the way in 2003.

Win it for Oh-san, or something like that.

How does "Oh Magic" sound?

Probably like a rescue squad may sound to a half-drowned man 35 km off shore.

Softbank really struggled during the last week of the regular season, going from 1 1/2 games back on Sept. 18 to 4 1/2 out when time was called.

The Fighters and Lions traded punches through the final day of the regular season, while Softbank stood there taking them on the chin.

The Hawks went 7-9-1 during the last month of the season, winning just once in the last half of the month, and closing on a six-game losing streak.

Oh came to give his players a pep talk before their final game of the year, a makeup game against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

Rakuten played pretty good ball as the season wound down, but when it beat Softbank 4-0 that night, it was a poor tribute to one of Japanese baseball's icons.

Maybe "Oh Magic" is not ready for prime time.

As for Seibu, what's to rally behind?

It has the best pitcher in Japan (Matsuzaka) and the highest paid slugger in Japan (first baseman Alex Cabrera).

The Lions haven't faced any really unusual obstacles, and the most intriguing sidebar would probably be the ongoing head count of scouts and radar guns Dai-chan has drawn.

But launching more ships than Helen of Troy does not a champion make.

That said, being good is good enough most days.

We'll have to see whether enough of those days come in October.



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